Exercise: The Fountain of Youth in Recovery

Exercise: The Fountain of Youth in Recovery

Silhouette of a couple running at sunsetWe were on the home stretch, and a friend of mine said, “If there is such a thing as the Fountain of Youth, this is it.” At the time we were three hours into a rigorous hike in the Puerto Rican mountains, and I was not feeling youthful in the least. The Puerto Ricans call them las colinas (the hills), but when it is 90 degrees and 98 percent humidity and you are trudging up a steep grade through rough terrain, I think it is fair to call them montañas. I think it is fair to question the entire enterprise…

I was sweating. My drinking water was hot enough to make tea. I could feel my heart pounding beneath my sports bra and with every step my toenails banged painfully against the front of my hiking boots. I felt like a plow horse in sight of the barn, stumbling with a bit more energy because I knew we were almost to our destination. My brain was screaming, “Why do I do this to myself? I am on vacation, not boot camp and this is NOT FUN ANYMORE.”

I do get what my friend was saying, even though her timing was off. When the hike was finished and I was sitting on the balcony looking at the sea with a gentle breeze ruffling my hair, I was glad I had pushed myself. I felt taller, and sharper and younger somehow. Exercise is the Fountain of Youth, and for those of us in recovery, physical fitness has the power to restore confidence, rejuvenate positive habits and provide a framework for long term sobriety.

When I decided to quit drinking, I was in terrible physical condition. Imbibing the way I did is certainly not conducive to keeping an exercise schedule. In fact, I used to go to bed with the remains of my last glass of wine on the bedside table and the fuzzy notion I really should exercise the next day. In the morning, the only workout I got was the yoga-like stretch from a side lying position (downward drunken dog), to reach for the leftover wine and start the vicious cycle all over again.

What Exercise Can Do For You

Getting back into an exercise routine took me a while, so I am rather proud of my accomplishments. Early in sobriety I was just happy to not drink, so I babied myself a bit and treated myself to anything I wanted as long as it did not contain alcohol – fast food, potato chips, candy, ice-cream and an entire season of Bloodline on Netflix in one sitting…

At some point I looked in the mirror with clear eyes and realized I did not look like the poster girl for sobriety. Luckily I have a body that bounces back like Silly Putty and a best friend who thinks hiking in a rain forest is a cakewalk… I started slowly, but I challenged myself every time a regimen became too easy and before long exercise was an integral part of each day.

No matter what your level of fitness, exercise is key for those in recovery. Here’s why:

  • Demanding physical activity takes your mind off your troubles and off the booze – you cannot moon over a glass of Chardonnay when you are busy planning the next move on a difficult slope or a rock climbing wall or a tennis court.
  • Exercise fills the time drinking used to take up – let’s face it, the days and nights are long in early recovery…
  • Please don’t tell me to become addicted to “good things,” or I might kill you, but exercise does release endorphins and replaces drunkenness with a natural “high” and a more positive outlook on life.
  • Exercise releases stress – after you’ve been rode wet, twisted and wrung out by alcohol, your body responds positively to the overall tension relief of physical activity.
  • I cannot believe I am saying this, but exercise improves your appetite. After a lifetime of binging and purging and starving and fasting it is amazing to eat. Real food. And if you exercise you are less inclined to eat processed foods, because you begin to treat food like fuel.
  • You lose weight.
  • You feel a huge sense of accomplishment. You will look better and feel better and your poor body (the thing you kicked around and treated worse than you would ever think of treating the family house cat) will tighten up and build stamina.

Get On Your Feet

I have zero intention of running a marathon or competing in an iron-woman contest. I am happy with a combination of long walks, Pilates and stretchy exercise bands. I still occasionally binge-watch TV and God help me, I love peanut butter cups. I cheat sometimes and talk myself out of doing anything but not drinking, but those times are fewer and farther between these days.

In the inimitable words of Gloria Estefan, who is Cuban-American not Puerto Rican, but you get my drift – GET ON YOUR FEET!

Get on your feet
Get up and make it happen
Get on your feet
Stand up and take some action
Get on your feet
Don’t stop before it’s over
Get on your feet
The weight is off your shoulder…