Exercise and Recovery

By Andrew Breed

My name is Andrew Breed, and I’m someone who’s dealt with a Substance Use Disorder. I do a lot of things to maintain a lifestyle that facilitates not using any substances to cope with daily life. It took me a while to get here but it’s something that can definitely be done. One of the big things that I do is exercise, which is why I chose to write about this topic. I would like to share some information and the role that it plays in my life. There’s a ton of research on this subject, and the agreement is that it’s beneficial to everyone, especially those who are recovering from a Substance Use Disorder. When I mention exercise, it’s all about whatever you can do based on your abilities and motivation, so anything that gets you out and moving. Even just walking 20-30 minutes a few days a week shows benefits. 

One of the reasons that exercise is so helpful for those of us in recovery is the way that it affects the brain. Personally, I deal with Opiate Use Disorder, which causes quite a bit of change in the brain, however this information can apply to anyone. Some of the changes affect the mid-brain and change how the reward system works. What should trigger the release of dopamine (a feel good chemical that the brain releases when you eat good food, have sex, see someone you love, etc.), just doesn’t trigger the same amount in someone who’s recovering from an Opiate Use Disorder. It takes about two years for the brain to get back to its natural state of being, though there are things that can be done to help speed that up, exercise being one of them. 

Heavy exercise by itself releases dopamine into the brain, so think of things like a runner’s high. It’s the brain’s way of self-regulating and rewarding behavior that’s beneficial. All of these things are beneficial and this is the brain’s way of encouraging a certain behavior. The unfortunate thing is that certain drugs cause a release of this chemical in the brain and since it’s artificially stimulated, there isn’t anything naturally that causes that much of it to be dumped, which is why drugs are so addictive. The problem with this is that the brain needs to be re-wired to produce its own chemicals again, so doing things that stimulate that production naturally help get things back in balance. 

One of the things that I found in early recovery was that I had a lot of time on my hands. Exercise is a great thing to do to take up some of that time, whether it’s a yoga class, power lifting, walking, or just about anything that you can think of. Along with taking up some of that time, if you can schedule it regularly during a certain part of the day, it can help provide some structure. I know for me it helps me stay motivated to keep going with my recovery. I look forward to my time in the gym, and it helps me to remember that I won’t go if I’m using/drinking. Recovery is tough and it can get stressful at times, but one great way to cope with that stress is going out and literally burning that excess tension that builds up inside. I know that when I’m out walking, I can think through situations that come up that are stressful and work out better solutions to issues or see them in a different way that helps me accept them. 

Co-Occurring disorders are common for people in recovery, which are both substance use and mental health disorders. Exercise is not an alternative to medication prescribed by one’s doctor, but it can have a tremendous impact on some of the symptoms of mental health. Some of those symptoms it helps are to increase the amount of energy you have throughout the day. It helps people sleep better, which leads to increased energy and self-regulation. Studies have found a link between people having increased self-esteem with regular exercise.

It feels great to know that this is just one more thing that I decided to do and actually follow through with now. It’s a similar thing that happens to people who go to a lot of meetings and feel “off” when they don’t go and can tell the difference. It’s become a very integral part of my own recovery process and I can tell when it’s time to go or if I miss a day. It’s something I can do where I can see the progress over time, which is a big thing for me. Not only that but the fact that I can see a difference in myself and my body helps keep me motivated to keep going. It’s like recovery for me. I figure if I can make it this far, what else can I do?

First published in Home of New Vision and WRAP’s The Recovery Advocate, Volume 5, Winter 2020.