The Recovering Body
Researchers have long known that aerobic exercise is efficient at lifting one’s mood, but it was only in the late-2000s that science finally admitted that this lift – the “runner’s high” – was a result of exercise flooding the body with certain chemicals. Today it’s often said that exercise stimulates the “reward centers,” a term that’s usually shorthand for the dopamine system, which is activated by stimulants, and the opioid system, which is activated by painkillers. Scientific research also indicates that the body’s natural endocannabinoid system – the body’s own cannabis or marijuana receptors – is responsible for the experience of relaxation, mood elevation, and suppressed pain sensitivity.
In the long-term, moving the body beats drugs hands-down in treating depression and anxiety. A 2012 Duke University study, for example, compared the effectiveness of Zoloft against running to treat depression. At four months, Team Zoloft and Team Hotfoot were neck and neck in terms of treating the illness: the drug was no more effective than exercise, and even putting the two together didn’t boost any benefits. The real surprise in the results of this study showed up at long-term evaluations. A year after initiating treatment, one-third of those taking the drug had relapsed back into active illness; however, more than 90 percent of the runners were still in remission.
They were still running. They knew that moving their bodies was keeping them from relapsing. And as NIDA director Nora Volkow mentioned, evolution has made these behaviors feel good to provide incentive for us to do them. Movement is medicine.
“Exercise is the most overlooked critical element in most recovery processes,” says Shane Niemeyer, an Ironman triathlete based in Boulder, Colorado, who uses physical fitness to help people in recovery. About half of Niemeyer’s clients are senior executives in business who are recovering from addiction. “They just intuitively see the value of exercise,” Niemeyer says. “I mean, it’s pretty much a factual statement: Your mental state and your emotional state parallel your physical state.” So, he says, if you’re “overweight and inert,” you can expect that your feelings and your mind will follow your body.
The experience Niemeyer speaks from is unique, and nearly tragic. In 2003, at twenty-seven, he was arrested in Idaho for drug possession and burglary. In jail, he tried to hang himself and failed. He woke up wrapped in a straitjacket in a jail infirmary, a position that gave him a lot of time to think. While there, he came across some magazine stories about triathletes. He turned the pages with his toes (seriously!), and he decided that since killing himself hadn’t worked out, he’d, well, he’d become a triathlete. And he did, in a process documented in his 2014 book The Hurt Artist: My Journey from Suicidal Junkie to Ironman. Since 2010, Shane has qualified for and competed each October in the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
“If you’re inert, if you’re inactive, it necessarily follows that you can’t be truly happy or healthy,” he says. “I mean, you just can’t, right? Because who we are as sentient beings and who we are cognitively – we are tied to our bodies. That’s what our organism is designed for. It’s designed for movement.”
And lack of movement is, as Harvard sociology professor Daniel Lieberman notes in this chapter’s opening epigraph, abnormal and pathological. My mistake back in late 1989 had been to stop cycling. What can I say? Winter hit. These were the days before UnderArmour and Smartwool outerwear, before spats and gaiters and balaclava bike helmets, before Gold’s Gym or 24 Hour Fitness. I couldn’t have afforded any of those anyway.
It never occurred to me that I could use my free student pass to the university’s gym. The idea of lifting weights had drifted through my mind, but the university gym was where the football and basketball teams trained, and the only people I had ever known who had lifted weights were dudes. Therefore, I concluded in my classic self-limiting way, lifting must be for dudes. Running is cheap, but I didn’t believe I could run. I didn’t even believe I could do sit-ups or pull-ups. The vestige of that chubby, sweaty, gasping little girl unable to finish her bike laps was still too powerful inside me, and I didn’t see any other fitness options.
The same was true when I got sober in 2008. By then, I had in fact cycled through the sunflower-studded fields of France. I had hiked through the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, the European Alps, the Yorkshire Dales. I had practiced yoga. I had created a garden by double-digging a huge perennial border.
But in detox, it had been years since I’d moved my body in those ways. I was insomniac and deathly tired, and my brain was muddled. I had trouble thinking through the simplest questions. I hadn’t the first clue about how to recover my body. It would have helped if I’d had some kind of community. There are loads of people in Twelve Step programs, for example, who exercise.
When I started my recovery, not yet off Suboxone, I was told that my sponsor was not my Higher Power, that meetings would not save me, and that I’d only get really clean and sober through “prayer.” So I spent a lot of time by myself, thinking and writing. The only community of sober people I had was online. They were dedicated and loving, and I remain indebted to them. Several I would trust with my house, car, and kid. But I could not look into their eyes, hold their hands, or stand shoulder to shoulder with them day after day, week after week. In my experience, it’s that physical contact that busts down self-hatred.
Today it’s possible to get at-home support for exercise regimens with online communities such as MyFitnessPal, Blogilates, thousands of exercise videos on YouTube, and the various forums set up by the makers of fitness trackers and home exercise programs. But in 2008, when I quit drugs, smartphones were Steve Jobs’s brand-new baby and apps were only twinkles in developers’ eyes. It wasn’t until after I relapsed at the beginning of 2010 that I realized Jen would have to Get Her Body Moving. Turns out, for me, and for a lot of others in recovery, it’s hard to recover one’s feelings and spirit without also recovering the body. And it’s easier to do that alongside other bodies.
So that was my second mistake: I had tried to recover by myself.
Excerpted from The Recovering Body by Jennifer Matesa, popular health writer and Guinevere Gets Sober blogger. Combining solid science and practical guidance, along with her own experience and that of other addicts, Matesa offers a roadmap to creating a unique personal approach to physical recovery. Each chapter provides key summaries and helpful checklists focused on the following:
- Exercise and activity
- Sleep and rest
- Nutrition and fuel
- Sexuality and pleasure
- Meditation and awareness