Recovery from substance use disorders often resembles training for a marathon. It’s a long process that requires discipline, focus, and ongoing effort. As addiction experts and mental health professionals gain greater insight into the behavioral-physical health connection, fitness programs are proving to be important components of long-term recovery.
This is particularly true at Odyssey House, where recovery includes engaging in regular physical activity and taking responsibility for your health. Research shows that exercise not only improves cardiovascular function and has other physical benefits but can also elevate mood, alleviate stress, and even improve brain function.
Exercise makes us feel better, both mentally and physically, and that is why physical fitness is such a big part of the Odyssey House experience. In my 25 years of clinical experience, I have personally seen the positive impact physical well-being has on the recovery process. Recreational activities, like running, help residents stay fit, develop self-confidence by achieving personal goals, and feel like they are a part of something larger.
A Perfect Antidote to Addiction
At Odyssey House, we encourage people in recovery to participate in physical fitness programs as varied as long-distance running, weight training, basketball, softball, Pilates, and yoga. Facilities are outfitted with exercise equipment and weights. In 2001, I founded “Run for Your Life,” a program that brings residents of all ages together several times a week in New York’s Central Park to walk or run. We have since had more than 300 clients and staff members complete the NYC Marathon.
The most widely understood benefits of regular exercise include weight loss, improved strength and enhanced cardiovascular health. And while physical health is an important reason for following a personal fitness plan, the effects of exercise aren’t limited to speed, strength and endurance. It also addresses the negative breakdown of the human spirit and provides those in recovery with a constructive, healthy way to spend their time. Addiction is time-consuming – a constant cycle of using and searching for the next fix. Training for a marathon, or embarking on a fitness program, fills that time. It requires long-term planning and commitment, necessary qualities for sustaining a lasting recovery and making exercise, in many ways, a perfect antidote to addiction.
Many of our clients enter treatment with decimated self-esteem and exercise gives them something to feel good about. The sense of accomplishment from completing a marathon or reaching a fitness milestone is powerful – it can help carry clients through the difficult stages of early recovery and gives them a reason to stay in treatment when they get discouraged.
Exercise Can Boost Treatment Goals
Although exercise regimens are not yet part of traditional recovery programs, new research is lending evidence-based support to the potential for exercise to boost traditional treatment. A study at Butler Hospital, an affiliate of Brown University, found that individuals in early recovery who participated in regular exercise were more than twice as likely to be abstinent from alcohol as the control group (Sejourne, 2014).
Exercise can also improve the brain’s ability to resist the temptations of addictive drugs. Two independent studies funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that exercise does more than simply provide an alternative activity that reduces the time available for drug seeking; both exercise and addictive drugs raise levels of dopamine in the brain’s reward system, and as a result, exercise may compete with cocaine as a source of pleasurable sensations (Whitten, 2012).
Power of Team Building
Social interaction is also crucial to recovering addicts, who must learn to build relationships without the help of drugs or alcohol. In addition to the direct physical and mental impacts of addiction, many recovering addicts and alcoholics have found organized exercise to be a source of camaraderie and support. Our marathon runners, for example, depend on each other to get them through the long training runs and past mental road blocks, both on the road and in treatment. And it’s not just our clients who are united in recovery. When our staff and clients train together, it establishes a mutual respect that evolves into improved therapeutic relationships.
Running also helps our clients reintegrate back into their community. People struggling with substance use disorders are often seen as a lost population. But our marathon team is changing the stereotype. Over the years, as Run for Your Life has become known in Central Park, I have seen the difference in how people respond to our clients. Once a source of concern, our clients are now a source of inspiration. One runner at a time, we are slowly eroding the stigma of addiction.
As our clients reintegrate, they become active members of their community and give back. Our marathon team is involved with Achilles Track Club, an organization that provides support, training, and technical expertise to people with disabilities. The Run for Your Life team volunteers at Achilles races and acts as guides for their runners. By giving back to the community, our clients reinforce their commitment to recovery.
Join us on September 20, 2014 for the 9th Annual Run for Your Life 5K Run & Recovery Walk. This event brings together individuals in treatment, their families and friends, and supporters of recovery services to promote the societal benefits of prevention, treatment, and recovery for mental health and substance use disorders. Visit odysseyhouseinc.org for more information and to register.
Sejourne, C. Exercise may help treat alcohol dependence, study shows. (2014, April 14). The Brown Daily Herald.
Whitten, L. (2012, April 19). Physical Activity Reduces Return to Cocaine Seeking in Animal Tests. National Institute on Drug Abuse.