Many of us have neglected various aspects of our physical health during active addiction. Addicts spend so much time preparing/planning to use, using, and recovering from using that everything else–including exercise and eating properly–often falls by the wayside. In addition to that, the substances we are putting into our bodies usually have serious negative physical effects. Alcohol, for instance, contains a high amount of empty calories which can cause weight gain. It also prevents the body from properly absorbing nutrients and can lead to vitamin deficiencies. Blood pressure and pulse are elevated during hangovers. And, of course, alcohol is dehydrating. Many alcoholics are consuming so many empty calories from alcohol and such a diminished appetite during hangovers/withdrawal that they may go days without eating anything. Other substances such as methamphetamines and also opiates can cause a marked reduction in appetite. Marijuana use can cause increased cravings for unhealthy foods. Finally, the irregular sleep/wake schedules and daily routines of many addicts can result in eating too little,too much, or a lot of unhealthy food; rapid swings in blood sugar are also common.
Thus, reestablishing good nutrition is an important part of helping the addict’s body heal. And maintaining a healthy diet is imperative to maintaining good long-term sobriety. Eating a healthy variety of foods, including fruits and vegetables and good sources of protein, and at regular intervals is very beneficial. Staying at an inpatient rehab often provides a good initial crash-course in returning the addict to a healthy eating routine as rehabs do a good job of ensuring that their food is healthy, tasty, and served at regular times. Later, being at a sober house can help the recovering addict to continue eating well as, often, peers in recovery can help keep each other accountable with regard to cooking healthy meals and avoiding cross-addictions to fatty, sugary foods. Remember also the important acronym HALT–cravings for substance use and a notably lower mood are often triggered by being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. Regular eating patterns that include healthy, filling foods can be key to avoiding drops in blood sugar and feeling hungry and irritable.
Addicts are known for loving sugar and caffeine; certainly, these substances are fine to enjoy in moderation but it is important to guard against developing a genuine cross-addiction, wherein sugar and caffeine (or other unhealthy eating patterns like overconsuming fast food) is used as an emotional crutch to deal with stress, at the expense of developing healthy coping strategies and a new way of life. Overall, eating properly enhances mood, increases energy, and can increase self-esteem, among other things.
Additionally, exercise is usually critical to developing and maintaining a healthy sober lifestyle. The myriad benefits of exercise are well documented. Exercise boosts mood and has a marked antianxiety and antidepressant effect. Exercising outside has the added benefit of sunlight exposure which has also been proven to improve mood. And exercise can be a powerful tool to relieve stress. The endorphins released during exercise can act as a “natural high.” Addicts are prone, however, to developing exercise cross-addictions where exercise is done excessively and where it becomes a replacement for substance abuse–similar to overeating or choosing unhealthy foods, the high from exercise can take the place of developing healthy coping mechanisms and a solid sober lifestyle and mindset. Often, the experienced members of sober houses, including house managers, are well versed in this phenomenon and can be on the lookout for residents who may be over-exercising.
Still, the benefits of exercise seem to far outweigh the potential for exercise addiction; it is highly recommended that all recovering addicts engage in some form of exercise. And it doesn’t have to involve training for a marathon; walking the dog or going for a hike, or even house cleaning, can elevate the heart rate enough to provide great benefits compared to being sedentary. Exercise can also help with weight-loss and developing muscle tone, which can lead to increased self-esteem as one sees one’s body becoming stronger and healthier looking.
As discussed, and as with starting many new routines in recovery, peer support is very helpful. Having friends to go to the gym with, or a running buddy, or planning to cook a healthy dinner with someone all go a long way toward building and maintaining new habits. A sober living house such as Harmony Haus in Austin, Texas, will be filled with many residents and new friends who can help keep you on track. Everything in recovery is much, much easier when we have peers and friends who support us and keep us accountable. A sober coach can also be a source of support and advice for developing healthy eating and exercise habits.
Good nutrition and regular exercise is representative of the larger concept of changing our lifestyles in many ways during sobriety. As we know, it is not sufficient to simply stop using substances. We have to learn a whole new way of living. We have to take care of ourselves mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and physically in ways that we have not done for years–or perhaps ever. And we need to commit to these changes and maintain them over the long-term, often relying on peers to keep us motivated. We cannot recover in a vacuum, without others around us. Thus, practicing good nutrition and exercise habits involves using many of the tools that we have developed in other areas of sobriety–social support, commitment, goal-setting, remembering why we are making these changes, and, finally, enjoying the results of our hard work!
Harmony Haus is a men’s sober living home in Austin, TX. It offers a wide arrange of support for those in recovery, in addition to luxurious accommodations and an atmosphere of serious recovery. Give us a call anytime.