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Exercise Your Way to Mental Health

Hiking for addiction recovery

Participating in an exercise program has many health benefits, both physical and mental. Regular exercise helps with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, weight management, and many other health issues. Regular exercise is also highly beneficial for mental health. Ask a runner why he or she runs and you will often hear about the “runner’s high”–a feeling of euphoria combined with reduced anxiety and a lessened sensitivity to pain. Endorphins have long been connected with the “runner’s high” and researchers in Germany have found that the brain’s endocannabinoid system may be involved as well. An endocannabinoid called anandamide has been found in people’s blood after they run. This endocannabinoid can travel from the blood to the brain.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

According to an article published in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, aerobic exercise, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and negative mood. Exercise improves self-esteem and cognitive function and can also help with social withdrawal. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise three to five days a week is all you need, researchers say. The benefits include improved sleep, stress relief, increased mental alertness, and an overall improved mood. Regular exercise also leads to greater self-confidence, more social interaction, and is a healthy way to cope with stress. 

Mental health professionals usually recommend that people struggling with depression and anxiety exercise regularly, provided that the client doesn’t have a health problem that precludes physical exercise. A young psychiatrist once said that if he could put the mental health benefits of exercise in a bottle, he would become a wealthy man!

Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Because of the mental and physical benefits of exercise, many treatment facilities include fitness in their programs. As one fitness specialist said, he works with clients to help them start an exercise program or get exercise back into their lives. According to a blog on an addiction site, an exercise program provides structure to a person’s day and can be a vital part of recovery. Exercise takes up time and is a healthy way to spend the time that used to be spent drinking or using. A blog on the Harvard Health website said that exercise can be a powerful tool to distract a person in recovery from cravings and can help people to build positive social connections. According to the blog’s author, Claire Twark, M.D., organizations are cropping up to promote physical activity for people in recovery. One of these is The Phoenix, which has locations across the country and also offers classes online. The Phoenix offers CrossFit, yoga, rock climbing, boxing, running, and hiking, and is open to anyone who has been sober for 48 hours, as well as their support groups.

Starting an Exercise Program

While mental health professionals recommend exercise for their clients, for someone suffering from depression, the task may seem overwhelming at first. To start, figure out what type of exercise you want to do. You may like exercising alone or you may prefer the dynamic of a fitness class. You may like to pick a couple of different activities to mix things up a little. You could decide that you will jog three times per week and go to a yoga class on two days. Or you may start out by taking a friendly dog for a walk.

After you have identified an activity or activities that you think you will enjoy, enlist some social support. Maybe you have a work-out buddy or maybe you report on your exercise program to a therapist or life coach. Exercising with a friend may be a motivator on days when you just don’t feel like working out or you might want to have something to report the next time you talk to your therapist.

Whatever exercise you have selected, it’s important to start off slow to prevent physical injury and burn-out. Your ultimate goal may be to run a marathon, but you need to start off slow and gradually increase the distance you run. It’s also important to set reasonable goals. If you haven’t exercised in a number of years, deciding that you are going to go to an exercise class six days a week probably isn’t realistic. A more reasonable goal might be to go to class three days a week and after a few weeks add another class to your schedule.

Decide what time of day you will work out. Some people love to start the day with a brisk walk or a swim, while other people prefer to work out later in the day. Whatever you choose, put it on your calendar and make exercise a priority.

A positive mind-set will help you with your exercise regime as well. Try not to think of exercise as a chore or as one more thing to add to your daunting to-do list. Try to think of your exercise sessions as something that you get to do for yourself, something that you look forward to. If you aren’t logging the miles you anticipated or making it to class as often as you had planned, take a little time to figure out what’s holding you back. Also, be prepared for setbacks and obstacles and figure out how to solve them. If you are a runner, there might be days when you run indoors on a treadmill because of the weather, for example. You may have to switch from running to walking to give an injury a chance to heal.

Whether you are struggling with depression, an addiction, or just want to experience the mental and physical benefits of exercise, find a physical activity that you enjoy and move your body. As Nike says: “Just Do It.”

Exercise is a vital part of an addiction recovery program and a huge help to people struggling with depression. Many treatment facilities include fitness among their alternative therapies because of the many physical and mental benefits of regular exercise. An important part of the recovery journey is creating a healthy lifestyle to replace the lifestyle of addiction. Exercise is a healthy way to cope with stress and the painful feelings that have been numbed by drugs or alcohol. In addition to the mental health benefits provided by exercise, exercise offers many physical benefits as well, including weight management, improved cardiovascular health, a lower incidence of diabetes, stimulating the immune system, and lowering the risk of developing some types of cancers. Fitness is one of the holistic treatment modalities that Enlightened Solutions offers to clients. If you or someone close to you is struggling with depression or an addiction, call (833) 801-5483.