A New High: Physical Exercise and Recovery

Yoga Runner Featured

By Steph G.

I was flying. The fallacy of my belief was revealed the moment I crashed – flying had been falling and I had been too high to notice. I didn’t stop at ground zero. Instead my bloated body travelled through several layers of geography. Such was bottom.

I was 35 and in horrible shape. I dragged myself upstairs and slept fitfully. I chain-smoked, binged on sugar and fat, was in a constant state of stress and was prone to mystery rashes that crawled up my arms and made it as far as my face. Body and mind had a relationship so dysfunctional that there were many days when it seemed that a divorce of the two was the only viable option. Nearly every thought cut like a scimitar.

Somehow I made it through those first agonizing days. There was no god to pray to as far I was concerned. If a theistic solution wasn’t going to cut it I needed an alternative to supplement what help I got from the fellowship. Hanging around meetings was problematic: I felt alienated and triggered by the god talk, thought spirituality such a vague and dilute term as to be of no help whatsoever and was concerned that many appeared to be in no better shape than I was. They coughed in a gurgling, guttural sort of way in between quoting the Big Book and reminiscing about surly old sponsors long gone.

At one meeting that I attended, a slightly stunned man stood outside the church with us and suddenly announced, “I mean, why do we do it? The smoking, I mean. All this effort to get sober and then – poof! – dead of lung cancer. Don’t get me wrong… I smoke too.”

And that about summed it up for me.

* * *

That physical exercise improves the body is obvious. But of greater importance to the recovering addict is that an ever-increasing number of studies confirm that getting moving is just as beneficial to the brain as it is to the muscles and joints. Exercise triggers cascades of feel-good chemicals, promotes natural pain relief and increases blood flow to the brain. This provides additional glucose to brain cells which results in more connections between neurons. Enhanced neuroplasticity means faster healing and improved cognition.

I believe addiction to be a sort of acquired brain injury and that the physical exercise that is a mandatory part of my personal recovery plan helps by building new healthy circuits to replace ones that encode unhealthy and self-defeating thoughts.

Exercise helps in other ways too. As an addict I am hardwired to seek instant gratification. Exercise is one of those rare activities that provide both instant and delayed gratification. As long as a person doesn’t overdo it, benefits can be experienced from the first workout onward. Those benefits accumulate which was not the case with my using, which was subject to the law of diminishing returns. Giving up my addiction also left me with many empty hours to fill. Time previously spent lifting glasses, waiting on dealers and re-watching Kung Fu Panda was now devoted to transforming body and brain.

And so, in the late summer of 2014, I began. The Tour de France – the annual bicycle race – was on at the time and I spent a portion of each daily broadcast with my toes shoved under the TV stand so I could perform crunches while watching some of the planet’s healthiest people pump their way up mountains. I dreamed of future healthful adventures.

My parents lent me a bicycle and I began riding it around the neighbourhood for half hour stretches. I purchased some running gear and slowly rediscovered an old love. I read a book on stretching and applied it.

My progress was by no means a steady upward climb. There were days in those first few months when I was so depressed that I was unable to do the one thing most likely to alleviate that awful malaise.

Six months into recovery I moved to Toronto. It was now deepest winter but I did not let that deter me. I had stopped exercising altogether for a couple of months and it was time to rededicate myself to healing. I restarted with a simple run/walk program. The first week my session involved running for two minutes and walking for four and repeating that five times for a total workout half an hour in duration. Each week of the program I ran a steadily increasing percentage of the time and by week 10 was running the whole 30 minutes.

The psychological rewards were immense. I recognized that I was gaining in mental toughness and slowly my core beliefs transformed. At the beginning of recovery I was convinced that I was the laziest, stupidest, most useless thing ever. But the steely determination that got me out running four days a week in freezing cold provided evidence to the contrary.

I began to believe in myself again.

Powerlessness was an illusion of the past. I set new goals in other areas of my life and reached them. I sprinted up stairs easily and became a better worker because now I was able to sit, focus and move about with much greater facility. My memory improved and so did my ability to bat away unwanted thoughts.

Spring rolled around and I found a gym that offered discounted memberships to low-income people. I began to supplement my running with twice-weekly weightlifting sessions. Anxiety provoked by the thought of a long, slow and painful decline towards the grave was lessened with each repetition. I stood straighter, slept better and smiled more.

That summer I went kayaking and discovered an organization that takes marginalized people on hikes through local conservation areas. I found a guidebook that featured numerous “psychogeographic” walking tours of Toronto and noticed that my brain thrived on the novelty of exploring new neighbourhoods by foot. My brain had to relearn how to experience pleasure in the absence of foreign psychoactive substances. I believe this would have been impossible without physical exercise.

Along the way I encountered a non-theistic definition of spirituality that resonated with me. Sam Harris, neuroscientist and freethinker, defines it thus: “…the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness – through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness.” Psychedelics were not an option for me and so it was via meditation, running and agnostic AA that I found my own version of nirvana.

Exercise changed my vibe, which made me more approachable and confident in social situations and thus the horrible isolation of active addiction became a thing of the past.

Yoga For RunnersThe journey continues and becomes more rewarding with every step. One of my presents this past Christmas was a book entitled Yoga for Runners. Author Christine Felstead is a fellow Torontonian and maintains a studio and website. The book made such a strong impression on me that I ordered one of her DVDs. I have become convinced of the necessity of lengthening my hamstrings while blissing out on Tibetan flute music. Such things did not preoccupy me when I was drinking and drugging.

To summarize: running lifts my non-theistic soul out of its doldrums and promotes healthy thinking and is the closest thing I have to a religion. Lifting weights protects my joints, changes my proportions in pleasing ways and leaves me with a clean feeling that no drug was ever able to provide. Yoga quiets all urges, improves my form and connects me with that long-distant stranger: myself.

Yet for this alcoholic that is not quite enough so this past week I tried out a complimentary Kung Fu class. The Wu Xing Martial Arts facility proved to be top notch with hardwood floors and requisite Kung Fu movie posters. Multiple reproductions of Bruce Lee watched as I accidentally joined a children’s class, thinking that their cooldown was actually the warm up for the All Levels Kung Fu class at 6:30 pm. Such a thing would have once mortified me – especially since I worked out for a full five minutes prior to being made aware of my mistake – but I took it in stride and quickly recouped my dignity.

On the way home I passed a brightly lit bar without looking in.


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A New High: Physical Exercise and Recovery — 30 Comments

  1. I’m on my 15th day of dry time and I was feeling pretty down until I read your article. Thank you so much for this. It was the perfect jumping-off-point for me today. Your service is so so appreciated! Thank you again.

  2. This was so incredibly helpful for me. I’m three months sober and have been exercising about a month now. I NEEDED this so much today, you don’t understand. Thank you.

  3. Loved the post! I agree with everything you said. I am writing a piece on Recovery in 2016. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions about how you are able to stay sober? I feel like stories and techniques on how ‘real life’ people do it, other than the stuff you read in a textbook.

    • Michael, I have forwarded your email address to Steph. And if you wish to share your piece with either AA Agnostica or AA Beyond Belief, let me know!

  4. I just celebrated 39 years of sobriety. I quite smoking when I was four years sober and two years later I started to run. After 25 years of running, I switched to walking. I also enjoy cross country skiing, cycling and wind surfing. Not only is exercise beneficial to mind and body, but it is a lot of fun!! Thanks for posting this great article on the importance of exercise. I just found an agnostic AA meeting two weeks ago and love it!!! Prior to that I didn’t even know they existed!!

  5. Exercise has done more for my recovery and depression than anything else by far. Its really amazing what the body can recover from. After years of drugs and alcohol and tobacco I could not walk up a flight of stairs without feeling like I was going to faint. Now I can ride a bicycle 100 miles and I have done it many times. Thanks for posting this.

  6. Ditto 37 years clean. Running, skating, skiing, biking, hiking: all the above keep my head screwed on right many 24 hours. Even Bill Wilson did many a long walk reciting the serenity prayer to himself. I know don’t forget we are freethinkers here. Also many a gym and pool passes. I like to think of a sauna as mother nature’s natural tranquilizer. This exercise regimen was a gift from my father.
    One of the gifts of my recovery was my father and I were able to do the Boston Marathon together .
    Bill G. Born again cosmic naturalist northwest Michigan.

  7. I was athletic as a teen, got lazy in my twenties, and started running and weight lifting when I was 26, although I wouldn’t quit drinking until I was 37. I have stuck to exercising, and now at 73, with 36 years of sobriety, I jog 10-15 miles a week, weight lift once or twice a week, and do Zumba about 5-7 times a week. I enjoy superb health and weigh the same as I did in high school. I enjoy working out. I can’t say it’s integral to my staying sober, but I believe it does wonders for my health (as of course staying sober does too).

    • Wow! Very inspiring and fills me with hope. Proof that aging doesn’t have to mean increasing decrepitude.

  8. Steph I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I am full of joy for you. You are an excellent example of what can be. I am a walker but I concur with you that movement is a must. I would love to do some of those urban walks with you.

  9. Excellent article, Steph, and great posts from the other responders! Your stories are wonderful for me to experience. As an agnostic in AA for the past 43 years, I discovered early on that a combination of meditation and aerobic exercise helped me achieve the “serenity” that the old-timers would talk about – and have helped me stay sober all this time. I was mostly a jogger and cross-country skier, with biking as an alternative in the summers. Now that I have had replacements of one knee and one hip, I have switched to snowshoeing and Nordic walking (I wish I had known about this vigorous walking with poles before I wore out those joints!). I also use an old Schwinn Air-Dyne exercise bike for its excellent full-body workout – in fact, I’ve gotten some dirty looks from bible-bangers at AA meetings when I refer to the Air-Dyne as my “serenity machine”. As you point out, vigorous exercise reduces depression and anxiety – and increases health. My experience leads me to believe that you are all on the right trail. Stay with it!

  10. An incredible post, Steph — thank you !~!~!

    I was also going to do an article on how important running was to my early recovery, but there is now no need — no way could I add anything of value for practical, non-theistic recovery in AA than you have so wonderfully shared with us here.

    Soon after my first anniversary, I began a long process of quitting smoking. After four years I was finally successful. I used to say that my higher powers, which to this day I don’t understand at all, got me sober, so I would stop smoking, so that I could kill myself by running.

    My first run was in a pair of Adidas flats used for sprinting — I ran for five miles, developing shin splints. However, I trudged the road to getting in shape. Six months later my first race was a half-marathon, which I finished with a sub-seven-minute mile pace. Yes, I have a high tolerance for pain !~!~!

    I’ve run off and on all throughout my years of recovery, finishing a number of NYC marathons, the last being in 2002. Last November I had congestive heart failure, spending a week in the Manhattan VA hospital. Presently, I’m slowly getting in shape again, doing a walk/jog a minimum of five days a week, losing excess weight again, and getting back in some kind of decent shape again, hopefully to do a 10K in the Fall.

    I’m going to emulate your initial training regimen when you moved to Toronto — thank you !~!~!

    • Thanks Thomas! I am starting a half-marathon training regime next week and looking forward to the new challenge. Thanks for your reply.

  11. Great post Steph G. I agree, if we can, we should exercise at least three times a week. For me running about 5 k most days is like going to meetings, one of the pillars of my recovery. The natural buzz, being outside in all weathers and the routine of running and sticking to it all, help with my self-esteem and the health benefits are obvious too. I am still struggling to give up tobacco. Running makes me feel smoking is real stupid and at least when I am running I don’t smoke. Thanks for your post and inspiring me to think about this more. I love boxercise but haven’t done it for a while. Time to find that boxing gym.

  12. I really enjoyed reading your post. I am seven weeks into my recovery and have been attending local meetings. Atheism is the one thing in my life I am the most confident in. I have been ignoring the god talk at the meetings but feeling alienated. I feel I am in the atheist closet and the group codependents would pounce upon me if they knew about my beliefs. Also, I have recently found that exercise is the new high I enjoy. So glad you shared. Thank you.

  13. Steph, thanks.

    And funny too. Grade school PE made me hate “exercise” for the rest of my life, though at the time I did love roaming the woods and climbing trees. So I have had to work my physical recovery along those lines.

    When I got sober I got on my bicycle and rode about all day. Nothing strenuous, just 20 minutes of slow driving, stop and get a cup of coffee, 20 minutes of lazy riding, stop and sit at a bus stop, 20 minutes of riding, go to a book store, all day like that. It worked, kept me occupied. I was a carpenter whose work week had shrunk to about 10 hours in a good week. Before long I was back to something more like normal. Physical labor is good too.

    Now I’m mostly retired, but live on 5 acres, always plenty to do. but you couldn’t get me onto an exercise bicycle more than 3 minutes.

    I walk the dog a few times a day.

    Since my cancer surgery a year and a half ago, I now eat all organic. My diet wasn’t terrible before, just not real good. Always, and still too few veggies. But I make a big veggie juice every morning now.

    And I quit smoking when I quit drinking. That will be 28 years on Saturday. I highly recommend it. Pass the word Y’all! I doubt that it was that much harder than it would have been to only quit drinking. Double frazzled or single frazzled, so what? In fact, when missed a drink, I could tell myself I was priobably just missing a cigarette, when I missed a cigarette, I could tell myself I was probably just missing a beer. Worked good playing them off against each other.

    Coffee I gave up a year or two sober. “Coffee” was two double espresso mochas in the morning. they got to seem less necessary once sober, so there was no reason to not kick that habit to the corner too.

    But I do wish I had it in me to exercise. It would have been a good thing. I just hate it so bad, even turning it over to god doesn’t make a dent in it.

    • Ha! Wonder why god’s not answering. As they say in mainstream AA: “God helps those who help themselves.” Or, in other words, “those who help themselves, help themselves.” Congrats on quitting smoking. And thanks for your positive feedback.

  14. Love this piece: happy body / happy mind. Its one of the many things that doesnt make the cut into the narrow definition of recovery which most dogmatic AA consists of. All the more reason why the informal fellowship and agnostic AA is important. I myself live by yoga, but its not that easy to describe: it must simply be done.

    Thanks again.

  15. Healthy living: what I eat and how I treat my body has, among other things, been a barometer of my mental/emotional health. I have ranged from sloth and gluttony to rigid eating and health practices. When being sober was new, my resting state was anxiety. It flared up to dread at one end and exuberant/manic at the other extreme but living sober was not comfortable.

    I quit smoking, started running and re-engaged with competitive sports (remember, I was in High-school when I got clean and sober). Within a year I was coaching basketball at my old elementary school, along with my team sports and running. Take away drugs and drinking and look at the extra time I had! Just like Steph it changed how I felt physically, emotionally and mentally.

    I sometimes say, “I have no hobbies, I take on new second careers.” I eventually ran two marathons and 26.4 miles is more than we have to run to be in good shape. More is better was my motto and too much is just right. If balance was near-impossible, at least I was now overdoing it with healthier choices. I found a balance in physical health.

    Lately my concern has been the food supply, organic farming and the relationship between disease and diet. It’s easy to over do it and be rigid about what I put in my mouth. But in this day and age “normal” isn’t optimal. It’s normal to be over-weight, have high blood pressure and die from disease. I want to be at a optimal level, not an average level.

    I’m resigned to death; I just don’t want it to be my fault.

    This is not an outside issue. Bravo for sharing this. All of life’s experience, strength and hope helps me in life.

    • Love this comment, too! And again, so much of it rings true to and for me. I was verging on very obsessive at one point about what I put in my mouth, but slowly I have found balance in that too. I can’t tell you how happy I am to read this!

  16. This is just amazing. You have perfectly summarized not only everything I think and feel about AA but, really, this almost perfectly mirrors my own story. My exercise of choice is weight lifting, mostly, although I’ve been known to enjoy an hour or more on the stairmaster. I have often said “my meditation is my workout.” That said, I do need and I therefore take a couple of prescribed meds, too. In any case, rarely in the rooms have I heard a story with which I identify as much as I have with this post. I cannot thank you enough. (Also cool that we have the same name and use the same nickname.)