A common pitfall for recovering addicts is basing our recovery on something outside of ourselves instead of on internal change. The three most common culprits are probably work, working out, and romantic relationships. These are things that most people want to have success in and that do enrich our lives but none of them will fill us up or make us whole on the inside. This is part one in a series of blogs that I’ll be writing on each one of these aspects of life that can become problem areas for addicts in recovery.

Drug addiction can cause all kinds of damage to the brain and body. Addicts hooked on a substance will continue to use it despite what it is doing to them. The longer the drugs are used, the worse these negative effects can become and the higher the risk for permanent, irreversible disability. Each class of drug is tied to specific side effects but addicts suffer many of the same consequences no matter what they’re using. Anxiety, depression, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, and mood swings are common psychological issues. These symptoms can get worse during withdrawal but are usually reversible and get better with continued clean time. Physically, drug abuse can cause organ damage/failure, cancer, heart disease, and infections. These conditions have the potential to be chronic but, like the psychological effects, are often reversible with continued abstinence.

The human body is amazingly resilient. In active addiction, we neglected our bodies and treated them like chemical weapon testing sites. The toxins we ingested ravaged our bodies and left us feeling weak. After being clean for several months, we start to feel more clearheaded and energetic. The body recuperates and therapists, doctors, and counselors all recommend and encourage exercise. A healthy diet and adequate sleep go right along with it. Physical health is undoubtedly important.

Exercise does a lot for both our bodies and minds. Regular exercise helps control weight. It can prevent heart disease and high blood pressure. It may even reduce the risk of certain cancers. It improves sleep, increases energy, and strengthens bones and muscle. Both aerobic activities and strength training can lower the risk for depression and help keep the mind active as people age. And you don’t have to live at the gym, all these benefits can result from three to five half-hour sessions a week.

Studies have suggested that exercise can help prevent developing a drug addiction and help recovering addicts stay clean. Working out releases natural hormones called endorphins. These are known as endogenous opioids because they are produced in the body and bind to the same receptors that drugs like heroin and prescription opiates do. Endorphins are natural pain relievers and mood elevators. They can help reduce the stresses of everyday life. Regular exercise effectively mitigates the additional stress caused by drug withdrawal and should be an essential part of early recovery.

Self-esteem is usually pretty low in early recovery. It isn’t just what the drugs did physiologically, it’s our actions and behaviors that cause a lot of guilt and shame. What we’ve done takes a toll on us. The disease of addiction manifests itself in many ways. Addicts tend to take things to extremes. Repairing the spiritual damage can take a long time so in the meantime, we’re naturally going to gravitate toward anything that might make us feel better about ourselves. Being addicts, by default we’re self-centered. We want to look good because we think looking good will make us feel good. This is true to an extent but it won’t make or keep us happy in the long run.

The reasons behind exercising play a big part in whether it hurts or helps our recovery. You should check your motives and ask yourself why you are exercising. Are you replacing one addiction for another and obsessing over working out? Is the gym getting in the way of meetings and step work? Are you just feeding your ego, burning fat and building muscle to be able to compare yourself to others? Or do you genuinely want the benefits of reduced stress, increased energy, and better sleep as a part of good self-care practices? These questions should be approached honestly and the answers can be a good litmus test of your progress in recovery.

I’ve seen what happens when addicts make the gym their recovery. All their focus goes towards physical fitness and their program suffers. They aren’t using drugs anymore but addicts can easily become addicted to other things. The longer they’re inactive in their program, the harder it is to get back on course. Unfortunately, this situation usually ends in relapse. Staying clean requires taking a good, hard look at ourselves and having the honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to do something about the things that kept us in our disease. We need to address these things specifically and being physically healthy isn’t enough. Addiction is a spiritual, mental, and physical disease and working out won’t work on all those aspects of it.

There’s nothing wrong with looking good but outward appearances don’t define a human being. Body fat percentage and weight don’t make us who we are. Being skinny doesn’t equate to being healthy. When I first got to inpatient treatment I was about 50 lbs. underweight and my skin had a sickly grayish hue. I looked like an extra from The Walking Dead. I thought I was in great shape because of how my clothes fit but I was completely enervated.

Addicts have fragile egos and are prone to delusions and fanciful thinking. We often have grand plans about what we’re going to do but we need to have realistic exercise goals and not get depressed and beat ourselves up if we fall short. Working out should be its own reward. The facts have to be faced that we may never have a six-pack or accidentally rip a shirt while flexing.

Hobbies and physical activity are good things to engage in. Exercise is great and I would encourage anyone to do it regularly. I usually go to the gym several times a week and do strenuous workouts. It makes me feel good and I enjoy doing it. Sometimes I go with friends, it’s more fun and we can encourage each other. I do have fitness goals that I want to reach. What I don’t do is let my reflection in the mirror dictate how I feel about myself. Working out will not keep me clean. I don’t exercise at the expense of my recovery program. I routinely talk with my sponsor, attend meetings, do step work, and actively try to practice the principles of the anonymous fellowships in everything that I do.