Researchers keep discovering new benefits that come with exercising. Perhaps it’s obvious that regular exercise is good for your physical health, but it may surprise you how good it is for your mental health as well. Regular exercise improves your mood by boosting levels of endorphins and serotonin: the “feel-good neurotransmitter.” Exercise improves your sleep, which leads to many other positive outcomes.
Also, exercise changes the way your brain responds to stress, which helps reduce chronic stress and anxiety. It even boosts BDNF, a neurotransmitter that grows neurons in your hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in creating long-term memories.
For these reasons and others, exercise is now part of most addiction treatment programs and should be part of every long-term recovery plan. However, this can be a huge challenge for many people. If you’ve never been especially active, you might not even know where to start. The following are some important things to consider when choosing what kind of exercise to do as part of your addiction recovery plan.
Everyone Is Different
First, it’s crucial to keep in mind that everyone is different. There’s no single right answer when it comes to choosing the best exercise for you. Everyone has different capabilities, levels of fitness, levels of distress tolerance, and levels of energy. Additionally, everyone has different interests and goals. When making choices about how to be active, stay focused on your own goals and needs, and keep evaluating whether what you’re doing aligns with those.
If you really have no idea where to start, start with walking. You can start by walking two minutes a day if necessary, to establish a healthy habit. It doesn’t matter so much if your exercise isn’t especially challenging at first. The easier the exercise is, the easier it is to form a habit.
Many studies have shown that walking delivers a lot of benefits, including improved mood and cognition, lower stress, reduced inflammation, healthier body weight, and lower risk of cardiovascular disease. A good initial target is walking 20 minutes a day, but it’s fine if you can’t manage that immediately.
Most research on exercise and mental health has focused on aerobic exercises such as walking, running, biking, and swimming. Completing these types of exercises at moderate intensity for 20 minutes appears to be the minimum effective dose.
Another common default exercise is running. A lot of people feel like if they want to get in shape, they need to get out there and run. Typically, walking is fine or even preferable if you’re not especially active. If you do decide you would rather run, give it a shot but take it slow. Most people try to do too much too early.
There’s a lot of repetitive impact stress on your body and it takes a while for your body to adapt. You might feel like you have more than enough energy to run a mile or more, but your ankles, knees, or back might disagree, especially if you run several days in a row. It’s better to do too little than too much when you first start running. You can always increase your mileage later.
It’s important to know what you want from exercise. Most people just want to do something to keep themselves mentally and physically healthy. If that’s what you want, you should be able to accomplish that pretty easily in a number of different ways. Other people will have more ambitious goals. Perhaps you want to lose weight, build strength, or even compete.
Athletics can provide a sense of self-efficacy, self-esteem, and community. Whatever your goals are, it’s important to keep them in mind. Individuals in the fitness industry can attempt to tell you that you should be doing certain activities when in reality, those things have nothing to do with your own priorities. Know what you want from exercise and stick with it.
A lot of people are under the mistaken impression that exercise only counts if you end up dripping sweat and out of breath. While some people are really into that, it’s not for everyone. Attempting intense workouts can keep you from establishing a solid exercise habit. The good news is that most kinds of exercise are easily scalable to your desired level of intensity. You can walk, you can run, or you can run fast, for example.
However, it’s also important to know what you’re getting into. For example, if you’ve never done yoga before, you probably don’t want to jump into an hour-and-a-half-long ashtanga class. The same goes for kickboxing or Crossfit, or anything where you have to keep up. The “go hard or go home” approach to exercise will most likely lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Another thing to consider is the skill required for a certain activity. There are a number of considerations here. First, high-skill activities tend to require a coach or at least a competent exercise friend to show you the basics. We live in an age where a lot of this information is easily accessible on YouTube and other places but these can never fully replace the guidance of a good coach. Since that may or may not be something you have access to, it’s important to consider.
The upside of high skill activities is that they tend to be more engaging. For example, jogging for an hour and practicing tennis strokes for an hour may require roughly the same amount of energy, but jogging for an hour can be intensely boring, whereas getting your serve or backhand to land in the court requires a lot more attention and experimentation. Wanting to improve your skills draws you into the activity and makes it more fun.
It’s important to figure out whether you would prefer to exercise alone or with a group. One large research study found that team sports are the single best exercise to do for mental health, due largely to the combination of physical activity and socializing. However, as noted above, everyone is different and you need to figure out what works for you.
Some people prefer their workouts to be alone time so they can think and unwind, while others enjoy the interaction. Keep in mind that team sports aren’t the only social form of exercise. There are also biking and running groups as well as exercise classes. Again, since there’s no right answer, you have the opportunity to explore what works best for you.
Finally, convenience is important. You may think you don’t mind driving an hour for fencing lessons, but it may get old after a while. If your goal is to make exercise a regular part of your life in order to manage your mental health and reduce your disease risk, you may want to minimize the barriers to actually doing it.
You can go to the gym near your house or your work, instead of the nicer gym across town. You can walk or run in your neighborhood. At least in the beginning, choose some kind of exercise that you can do with little inconvenience. Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your recovery from addiction but getting started is sometimes intimidating.
Keep in mind that everyone has to start somewhere. Choose something that interests you, but you don’t need to commit to the first thing you try. Also, keep in mind that the best exercise is always the exercise that you’ll actually do, whether that’s running marathons or walking around your neighborhood.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that addiction from recovery is really about living a healthier, more fulfilling life. That’s why our program is designed to improve all aspects of life, including being more active. To learn more about our holistic approach to addiction treatment, call us today at (833) 801-5483.