Nutrition, Exercise Play Important Roles in Addiction Recovery

By Hugh C. McBride

At Bayside Marin, an exclusive residential recovery program in Northern California, clients enjoy meals prepared by an executive chef and work out under the supervision of a personal trainer.

At Sunrise Recovery Ranch, an addiction recovery program for men in Southern California, daily life includes great meals and sports such as basketball, volleyball, swimming and softball.

And at the women's addiction treatment program The Rose of Newport Beach, Calif., the healing process is conducted in an environment that features nutrition counseling, culinary workshops and physical activities such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates and body sculpting.

To the uninformed, features such as delicious dining opportunities and enhanced fitness facilities might sound out of place in programs that are designed to wean clients off of drugs and alcohol.

But as several studies have shown -- and as numerous experts and countless recovering individuals can attest -- healthy nutrition and physical fitness are important components of an effective addiction recovery plan.

The Mind-Body Connection

Substance abuse disorders and addictions have clear mind-body components. For example, addictions often begin in efforts to overcome pain and depression, and efforts to stop using are often overpowered by physical cravings and emotional urges.

To address both the physical and mental aspects of addiction and recovery, treatment professionals employ strategies such as medication plans to help with withdrawal symptoms and cognitive behavioral therapy programs to teach clients how to change their mindsets and behavior patterns.

But therapy and medications aren't the only ways to address the mental and physical challenges experienced by individuals who are either in recovery or still struggling to overcome a dependency on alcohol or another drug.

Eat Better, Feel Better, Live Better

Among the many ways that alcoholism and other forms of addiction impact the body is by depriving it of proper nourishment.

From suppressing appetite to causing cravings for calorie-rich, nutrition-poor foods, many drugs of abuse lead users to follow decidedly unhealthy diets. Other drugs (such as alcohol) fill abuser's bodies with empty calories, leading them to feel full in the absence of the nutrients their body needs.

To counter this damage -- and to help clients achieve a state of health and wellness that will help them in their efforts to overcome their addictions -- many addiction recovery programs are paying increased attention to the importance of following a healthy diet during addiction treatment and throughout the recovery process.

In a Dec. 18, 2008, article for Recovery Magazine, Emily Battaglia described the importance of good nutrition in recovery:

An important part of recovering from addiction is learning to properly nourish the body. From a physical standpoint, a healthy body is a happy body, and a happy body supports recovery better than a sick or pained body.

In addition, eating certain foods can help assuage cravings and avoiding other foods can help stabilize moods swings, both of which can help prevent a relapse into substance abuse. In mental and spiritual terms, learning to eat properly is part of learning to care for oneself and learning to make strong life choices.

The Road to Recovery

For some individuals who have been struggling to overcome an addiction to drugs or a dependence upon alcohol, the road to recovery literally is a road (or, in other cases, a path, a trail or a track).

For those people, physical fitness programs that involve running, walking or hiking help them develop the mental clarity and physical strength that they need to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety. Incorporating a regimen of regular exercise into their lives can benefit recovering individuals in the following ways:

  • Provide a healthy outlet for negative emotions -- Instead of turning to drugs in unproductive efforts to cope with stress, pressure or disappointment, individuals who have established a healthy exercise regimen can work out their problems while working out.
  • Develop discipline -- Self-discipline is an essential component of the pursuit of long-term recovery, and following a regular exercise routine is a way of practicing this type of personal accountability.
  • Increase focus -- Working out on a regular basis requires individuals to plan their time and pay attention to their bodies -- two activities that are also important parts of staying sober.
  • Enhance confidence -- As people develop their bodies through exercise, they are also developing their confidence and sense of accomplishment. These acknowledgements of ability and success can come in handy when confronted with the challenges of recovery.
  • Fill time -- Being an addict can be quite time-consuming, with large chunks of one's day devoted to finding, acquiring, using and recovering from one's substance of choice. One positive way to fill those "empty hours" is by engaging in regular sessions of vigorous exercise.

In a July 14 post on PsychCentral's “World of Psychology” blog, recovering alcoholic Therese J. Borchard described the effect that exercise had on her efforts to stay sober:

I relied on group exercise just as much as my meetings when I was newly sober. A few of us would take long bike rides on the weekends that helped me grieve the loss of my best friend (liquor).

I look back with fondness on those afternoons, when a dozen of us would bike 20 miles to a pancake place where we’d consume the calories we had just worked off.

I don’t know if it was the dopamine high or the group support, but those bike rides gave me hope that my life didn’t have to be stoic and boring just because I was going to stay out of bars.

Incorporating Exercise & Nutrition into Recovery

If you or someone you love is struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism, consider the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise when choosing the treatment option that best meets your needs. When interviewing program personnel or touring recovery facilities, ask about their diet plans, nutrition experts, exercise opportunities and related topics.

The goal of addiction treatment is twofold: to stop using and to maintain long-term recovery. By incorporating healthy nutrition and exercise practices into your daily life, you enhance your ability to successfully achieve both of these goals.