The “runner’s high” you may have heard about isn’t just a myth. Karmel Choi, a clinical and research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found a 26% decrease in a person’s odds of becoming depressed for each major increase in objectively measured physical activity. A National Library of Medicine review of 39 research studies found that regular aerobic exercise was as effective as antidepressants in boosting mood in people with mild to moderate depression. For people in recovery from a substance use disorder, the evidence is clear that physical activity should be thought of as a vital part of their long-term care plan.
How Exercise Can Help Boost Your Mood
There are several ways in which exercise can help boost your mood. For example:
- Exercise releases endorphins. These natural cannabis-like brain chemicals (endogenous cannabinoids) can increase your sense of well-being.
- Exercise increases confidence. Seeing yourself get faster, stronger, and better able to excel in your chosen sport makes you feel more confident about your ability to reach your goals in other areas of your life.
- Exercise expands your social circle. Joining a gym or a recreational sports league can help you meet friends who will be supportive of your recovery efforts. This can help with the loneliness and boredom that sometimes accompanies the early stages of sobriety.
- Exercise distracts you from your troubles. Focusing on your workout keeps you from getting caught in a cycle of negative thoughts that can exacerbate depression and anxiety.
- Exercise helps you cope with cravings. Many people in recovery have found that exercising helps them manage the irritability that can accompany their cravings.
Most of the studies related to mood and exercise suggest that you should aim for 30 minutes or more of exercise per day for three to five days a week. However, if this seems unmanageable, you should note that even as little as 10 to 15 minutes of physical activity can still provide valuable mood-boosting benefits.
Reasons Why You May Not Be Feeling the Full Benefits of Your Workout Routine
Although the mood-boosting benefits of exercise have been well-established, it’s worth pointing out that it can take some time to see results. In the beginning, you might find exercising actually makes you feel worse. If this is the case, the following factors may be to blame:
- Your blood sugar levels are dropping too much. During a workout, your body uses glucose as fuel. This can cause post-workout blood sugar crashes that leave you feeling depressed and irritable. A healthy pre-workout snack should help you keep your blood sugar levels stable.
- Your body is being flooded with cortisol. If you’re already feeling stressed out, you want a workout that is kind to your body. If you push your body too hard when your cortisol levels are already high, the resulting increase can trigger a “fight or flight” response that causes feelings of depression or anxiety. Instead of a grueling five-mile run, consider a leisurely walk with a friend or a relaxing yoga session.
- You have unrealistic expectations. Reaching your fitness goals takes time, and this can be a frustrating experience for many people. Remind yourself that you’re making steady progress with every workout, resist the urge to compare yourself to others, and use the SMART goal framework to make sure your fitness goals are appropriate.
Some people also find that exercise causes them to feel tired instead of energized. There are a few potential reasons for this:
- You’re pushing yourself too hard. If you’re new to an exercise routine, you may be working out too often or at too great of an intensity.
- You’re not eating well. A poor-quality diet affects the ability of your muscles to recover after a workout. Your body needs a balance of healthy carbs, fat, and protein.
- You’re dehydrated. Sweating causes you to lose fluids, which can lead to dehydration if you’re not drinking enough water. (Sports drinks are not necessary after a workout unless you’ve exercised for more than one hour at a high intensity or outside in hot and humid conditions.)
- You have an underlying medical condition. Diabetes, heart problems, thyroid issues, and sleep apnea are just a few examples of medical conditions that can make it more challenging to experience the full benefits of exercise. See your healthcare provider for advice on the best way to create a fitness routine that works for your needs.
Taking a Holistic Approach to Substance Abuse Treatment
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we take a holistic approach to substance abuse treatment. This means we encourage our clients to heal their mind, body, and spirit instead of simply focusing on abstaining from the use of addictive substances. Clients at our Pennsylvania residential addiction treatment center learn about the benefits of exercise, good nutrition, and a wellness-focused lifestyle as they work towards building the foundation for lasting recovery. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you or your loved one take the first steps towards a brighter future.