We all know that exercise is good for our physical health but an increasing volume of research is showing that it’s great for good for our mental health as well. One large study looked at data from more than a million people and found that those who exercised actually had 43 percent fewer days of poor mental health in the past month than people who did not exercise. That’s a significant difference.
This is especially important for those recovering from mental health and substance use disorders. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of adults and 60 percent of adolescents with substance use issues have a co-occurring mental health issue. Substance use and mental illness typically make each other worse, so it’s crucial to treat both simultaneously and to look after your mental health in recovery. Recent research suggests that exercise is a crucial element in maintaining good mental health and states that it may even help prevent relapse.
Despite the clear benefits of regular exercise, many of us are far too sedentary. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, only about five percent of Americans get the recommended minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day. Many people want to exercise but they don’t know how to start or they can’t seem to find the time. Here are some tips for supercharging your recovery by making exercise a habit.
When people think of exercising, they usually think of running or going to the gym and lifting weights. If those options appeal to you, do some research and give them a try. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking those are your only options. Plenty of people give running or weight lifting a fair try, feel like it’s not for them, and just quit trying to exercise completely. The important thing is to be physically active for around 30 minutes a day and there are countless ways to do it. Even something as simple as walking can help. One Australian study of more than 1000 women found that those who walked 200 minutes a week–which works out to be less than 30 minutes a day–had fewer symptoms of depression. While more intense activity typically gives more bang for your buck, remember that the best exercise is the exercise you will actually do.
Getting started is usually the hardest part of exercising for people. This is especially true if you’ve never been very active or if you used to be active but haven’t been for a long time. Gatorade commercials and movie training montages have tricked a lot of people into thinking that if they want to get fit, they have to jump in with both feet and go hard for at least an hour every day. For the vast majority of people, this approach is unsustainable and will most likely lead to injury.
Starting small is a much better option. Training yourself to feel good about exercise is important. You might be able to grind your way through those Crossfit classes for a while but you are also learning to associate exercise with pain and that will eventually catch up to you. It’s already uncomfortable to add something new to your normal behavior so it might be best to make exercise as pleasant as possible at first. Start with something as simple as a five-minute daily walk. It’s not likely to be excessively painful or inconvenient and you will probably even notice a slight improvement in your mood. Gradually increase intensity as you are ready. There’s no rush.
Make exercise a daily habit. When something is part of your routine, you just do it without thinking. Once you get to this point, you won’t have to use willpower every time you feel like you should exercise. The first step in making exercise a part of your daily routine is seeking manageable and enjoyable activities that you look forward to doing. Next, try to anchor exercise to something you already do daily. For example, every morning you wake up and get out of bed. Consider adding to that routine by getting out of bed and immediately going for a five-minute walk before starting your day. If you’re not a morning person, you might exercise when you get home from work. The only caveat is that you don’t want to exercise too close to bedtime since that could make it harder to sleep.
Making exercise social is an excellent way to get active more consistently, as doing things with friends is fun. One study found that the form of exercise with the best effects on mental health was participation in team sports. Adding a social dimension to exercise reduces stress and increases the likelihood that you will follow through on your commitment to exercise. It also makes exercise more of a fun activity than a chore. Consider joining a recreational sports league in your area. If team sports aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to make exercise social. Find yourself a gym buddy. Seek out hiking or cycling groups. Join an exercise class such as spin, yoga or boxing. Get creative and find what works best for you.
Dedicating a half-hour or hour block to exercise is not necessary in order for your physical activity to “count.” Look for opportunities during the day to be more active. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Carry your grocery bags to the car instead of pushing them in the cart. Walk or bike to nearby places instead of driving. Being active throughout the day is an easy way to get the minimum recommended dose of exercise without having to try so hard.
Recovering from a substance use disorder means making positive lifestyle changes. Such changes include sleep hygiene, a healthy diet, building a social support network and regular exercise. Making exercise part of your daily routine is good for your mental and physical health and it helps leverage those other changes more easily. At Steps Recovery Centers, we understand that recovery from addiction is a holistic process, involving mind, body, and spirit. We are committed to supporting our clients for as long as necessary to ensure their long-term recovery from addiction. To learn more about our alumni services, call us at 385-236-0931.