GUEST COLUMN:

Exercise plays a key role in addiction recovery, stresses of pandemic

In many ways, exercise can be life-changing, and even life-saving. I know because I’ve been there.

I’d been a standout athlete my entire life, working out and playing sports since I was 13. Sports had become my entire identity, and I was finally living my dream, playing as a tight end for the Detroit Lions, when a severe neck injury forced me into retirement after just two seasons.

Unable to play or work out for what seemed like an eternity, I was devastated, depressed and miserable. After months of depression, body dysmorphia and feeling lost, I finally dragged myself back into the gym. And it was truly life-changing.

Exercise became my path to restoring my self-worth, my pride and my identity. I finally felt like myself again, and I’m convinced it saved me from going down a dangerous path. So many people have turned to alcohol or substances to cope with challenging times, and that could easily have been me too.

Having seen the power of exercise bring me back from rock bottom, I’ve made it a personal mission to help others realize the healing power of exercise. Because mental health is such a critical factor in addiction recovery, exercise is becoming a top priority in the way we treat and manage both short- and long-term recovery here at Desert Hope, an American Addiction Centers facility in Las Vegas. And we’re also working to incorporate physical fitness as part of our treatment regimen across our entire network of recovery centers.

Here’s why we’re making exercise a key priority to help patients find and stay on a path of self-care and sobriety. Many of these same benefits apply to anyone struggling with anxiety, depression or other issues that have intensified due to COVID-19 isolation.

Natural mood booster: It’s well-documented that the hormones released during exercise, including endorphins and serotonin, can enhance mood and alleviate anxiety, fear and depression. This can help to offset symptoms of withdrawal and provide a natural “fix” without the use of substances that cause harm. For this reason, exercise also addresses some of the underlying mental conditions that lead to substance use.

Improved sleep: Getting adequate sleep can be a huge problem for people in recovery. By fatiguing the body and setting up a healthy cortisol/melatonin cycle, exercise supports the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which can help offset sleep disturbances common during detox, ongoing recovery and for those dealing with mental health issues. If you’re worn out from a great workout, it’s pretty hard to lie awake all night with worry and anxiety.

Patterns of healthy behavior: Many individuals in recovery need to fill the gap created when they shift away from a lifestyle of substance use. Trading addictive behaviors for exercise establishes a pattern of healthy behavior that has been shown to minimize the risk of relapse and decrease compulsion and cravings.

A “win” for the day: Those who are dealing with mental health issues or substance use often feel hopeless, lacking a sense of meaning or purpose. A single workout, even just going for a walk around the block, creates a sense of accomplishment — you did something good today. That sets up a pattern of wins that can help individuals start to build a healthy self-image.

Reduced stress and improved cognition: Working through mental health challenges and tackling addiction are extremely stressful, and it’s easy to get caught up in a pattern of toxic thinking, where your first instinct is to doubt yourself, overanalyze and make mountains out of molehills in your head. By getting your blood pumping, exercise channels that energy toward physical effort, which reduces mental stress and helps your brain function more efficiently and clearly. Ask anyone who exercises regularly, and they’ll confirm they often find answers to their biggest challenges and questions during a workout, thanks to the ability to think more clearly and “get out of their own head.”

Improved self-confidence: Depression, lack of self-confidence and substance use often go hand-in-hand. When people don’t feel good about themselves, whether due to life trauma or a chemical imbalance, substance use can easily become a coping mechanism. Exercise can turn that around: When you feel physically stronger and more capable, it helps you to feel mentally stronger and more capable.

Adding an exercise component to a robust addiction and mental health treatment program is a tremendous benefit for patients in helping them overcome some of the underlying challenges surrounding recovery. By establishing healthy habits, an exercise program can become a powerful coping mechanism that can help those in recovery navigate tough times and challenging situations that might otherwise put their recovery at risk.

Derek Price is the CEO of Desert Hope Treatment Center.