Science / Health

4 Reasons Why Running Can Help with Your Addiction Recovery

There was a time when the only reason I ever considered actually running – as in rapidly putting one foot in front of the other, like an NFL wide receiver – was to either avoid the law or another angry storekeeper, normally because I had just stolen a $30-bottle of liquor from his premises. I was pretty quick, too, but only when I had to be.

Of course, I ran in high school and college, like all kids, but, once the cocaine and the alcohol took a hold of me, there didn’t seem any time left over for running the 800m races my phys-ed guy kept pushing me toward. In fact, there wasn’t much time for anything other than getting high and drunk back then.

No time at all for any kind of real academic study, or the impromptu studies of the opposite sex that all my friends seemed to be now majoring in, or anything else, for that matter. Just the magical, white powder, and the endless hard booze.

However, that, as they say, is all in the past now. Even though it felt to me like my life had run its own race, and had left me breathless and without hope on the side of the track, my parents, who had repeatedly tried to help me see sense, finally decided they had had enough.

Pretty much kidnapping me from the wreck of a downtown apartment I was “living” in, they drove me in our family sedan to the next state over, where, having prearranged everything in advance, they dropped me at a highly respected alcohol and drug rehab facility, and told me simply to “Get well, and then get yourself home.”

That was over 8 years ago now, and, even though I was pretty wrecked myself at the time, I remember that day reasonably well. I remember more so the troubled look on their faces as they left me to find the sobriety they believed would save my life.

They needn’t have worried – just the act of taking me into addiction treatment, no arguments, no nada, that was enough. That act, borne out of their love, had really saved my life that day.

I have learned a lot in the ensuing 8 years or so – about myself, my character, my weaknesses, my flaws, my strengths, my empathetic view of life, my potential triggers to relapse, and the importance of mindfulness, of living life in the moment. I’ve also learned that these legs of mine can still hack a good pace when asked to do so.

Now, instead of running from cops, who usually caught me anyway, and irate store-owners, who never caught me, I run with people – with friends, or others from the running club I’m now part of, and in the odd charity 5km-race, too.

When taken as part of my ongoing addiction recovery, along with the Pennsylvania rehab resources I use, and the support group meetings I attend, running regularly has become integral to my daily life. Here is why I believe that running can positively help you with your addiction recovery.

To your marks, get set, ready

1. Mental Health Benefits

Regular running has the obvious physical benefits as many other forms of aerobic exercise, improving fitness levels, and strengthening both the heart and the respiratory system. However, slightly less well known are the undeniable mental health benefits that come with running.

In fact, and particularly for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, running is a far healthier way of alleviating stress and anxiety, and the perfect way to improve our mood. Additionally, it can help to suppress substance cravings, lessening the potential risk of relapse.

Here are a few examples of the many mental health benefits associated with regular running as a form of exercise, which, in turn, translate to lower rates of relapse:

  • A more positive and improved mood: Known as the “runner’s high,” regular aerobic exercise, like running, increases the brain’s natural levels of endorphins and dopamine [more on this later]
  • Reduced feelings of depression: For recovering addicts, depression (or a general feeling of sadness) is normally a factor in the addiction, and sometimes a co-occurring illness
  • Reduced cravings: for both substances, eg. drugs, and unhealthy, sugary foods
  • Increased sense of control
  • Improved cognition
  • Improved self-esteem and confidence levels, and a
  • More positive outlook

Regular running, as both a physical exercise and an active hobby, can also provide many opportunities to meet other people who are happy to encourage one other toward success. There are even “sober” running clubs that you can locate online and join, much like a normal recovery support group – just without the chairs.

2. Physical Fitness

Mental health is important for the recovering addict, but it’s not the only important way of preparing yourself for the trials and tests that lay ahead. Feeling physically fit and strong goes a long way in supporting your levels of both self-esteem and self-confidence. Furthermore, the fitter and stronger you are, the less likely you are to suffer with infections, bouts of the flu, and generally feeling under the weather – times when your chance of relapse may increase because you feel unwell.

3. A Healthier Brain

As indicated earlier, let’s return to one effect that running can have on a brain more used to harmful and powerful toxins than normal feel-good chemicals produced naturally. Running can create a feeling known as the “runner’s high,” which is an increase in the brain’s natural production of endorphins and dopamine that are usually released during exercise.

Addiction is the dependence on a substance which will interfere with the natural chemistry and the various normal functions of the brain, particularly those functions in the brain’s “reward center.” Drug use results in an abnormal release of a high quantity of dopamine, literally flooding the brain with this natural feel-good chemical.

Long-term drug use will then disrupt how the brain normally produces dopamine, and, therefore, how the user experiences feelings of pleasure and euphoria. When an addict enters recovery, and is no longer able to access these drugs, the brain takes time to adapt again. Running is proven to help in this process.

4. More Balanced Days & Nights

Days and nights never really mean anything when you’re an addict or an alcoholic. They kind of just pass you by. However, in recovery, they provide a natural schedule, as they do for most other people. By incorporating regular running into your day, these differences become more pronounced – you have much more energy during the day, and, come the night, you’ll naturally feel more tired, and your sleep will be a thousand times better than when you were using or drinking.

Don’t Run to Escape Life, Run to Meet Life…

These 4 reasons why running can help with your addiction recovery have provided many ex-addicts and ex-alcoholics with the very cornerstones to their own successful journey toward a better, more fulfilling life – substance-free.

A quick reminder for you:

  1. Mental Health Benefits
  2. Physical Fitness
  3. A Healthier Brain
  4. More Balanced Days & Nights

Recovery is a long journey, down a hard and winding road. Running regularly will help you to get there quicker, and feeling far better than you have in years. Good luck to you.

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