Why People Turn to Exercise to Stay Sober
Updated: Sep 6, 2019
There are real physical, psychological, and social benefits for people in recovery.
Scott Lapollo runs up to a popular path encircling a reservoir at the edge of Boston and smiles at the sight of hordes of other runners doing laps.
Not long ago he was more likely to spend a cloudless Saturday like this one getting high on something other than sunshine and endorphins, he says. Now he’s working his way through the legal system and fighting his addiction to prescription drugs. Part of his recovery is running with fellow members of the Boston Bulldogs, a running group of men and women who are also contending with substance issues or have family or friends who are.
“It’s like we’re all in this together,” says Lapollo, 43.
Over the last several years, a growing body of research has suggested that exercise may help reinforce addiction recovery. Amid the optimistic news, more and more groups like the Boston Bulldogs are forming. Along with running and cycling clubs catering to people with addictions, there are fitness trainers and gyms that specialize in helping clients stay sober.
“For a while there was only psychotherapy and medications. More recently the benefit of exercise has become apparent, so a lot of practitioners have started using these approaches together,” says Anthony Kouri, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center in Ohio. “It helps people fill their time, release endorphins, and feel naturally good instead of the synthetic feeling of using drugs.”
Exercise reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, while increasing endorphins and adrenaline. Early animal studies have shown that physical activity can curb dependencies on substances including opioids and cocaine; tests on people addicted to drugs in Denmark found that regular exercise improved energy, body image, and quality of life for most people in the study and, for nearly half of them, helped end or reduce their substance use.
“It helps people fill their time, release endorphins, and feel naturally good instead of the synthetic feeling of using drugs.”
Some experts suggest that it’s the psychological aspect of exercise — especially group activities — that provides the most benefit. An exercise regimen can bring structure to someone’s daily life and help them make connections.
“The social component might be more important than the physical one,” says Kouri. “People who are addicted to drugs tend to isolate themselves, and when they get into these group settings, it changes their mindset about life, about themselves. If you have a group that you’re consistently working out with, they’re holding you accountable. You’re not just relying on yourself.”
That’s what Dru Pratt-Otto says she’s experienced. A youthful-looking 60-year-old member of the Boston Bulldogs wearing a club singlet and a running watch, Pratt-Otto has gone from an unhealthy dependence on alcohol to running half marathons. “Here we’re in community with each other,” she says. Running “gives you something else on which to focus your obsessive thinking.”
An estimated 21 million Americans in 2017 were in need of substance use treatment, and some treatment facilities are incorporating fitness into their therapy. This includes the Beach House Treatment Center in Malibu, which in the spring added surfing to its fitness classes. “Just the natural endorphins you can get as a result of exercise and getting in touch with your body is huge. You’re craving that high and it’s a way to naturally get that,” says “surf therapist” and avid surfer Christiana Grotlisch, a social worker.
But there’s more to it than that, she says. “While they’re out there on the water, we’re reflecting, looking back at the shore, and seeing we’re okay — we can make it through.”
A chain of gyms called The Phoenix offers free workouts to people in recovery. The nonprofit now has gyms in 22 states and says it has served 27,000 people. “It’s crazy what happens when you stop drinking and start working out at a gym,” says Michael Underhill, who started as a member when he first got sober and now is the gym chain’s New England manager of community outreach and development.
While recovery programs like The Phoenix and Beach House Treatment Center are embracing the early science, few experts would suggest that a workout plan on its own is enough to help people maintain sobriety. “I don’t want people to get the message of, all you have to do is exercise and your life’s going to be okay,” says Todd Crandell, a former addict who has completed 29 Ironman competitions since getting sober. He’s now a licensed addiction counselor and founder of Racing for Recovery who encourages his clients to be active and trains some of them to do triathlons. “It’s one piece of the recovery puzzle, but it’s a very important piece.”
Part of the reason exercise works for many people in recovery could be simply that it takes up time in their day. Exercising gives people something to do with the time they might have previously spent on vices like alcohol, as she did, says Meredith Atwood, a triathlete and author of The Year of No Nonsense: How a Little Less Bullshit Can Change Your Life (out in December). “It keeps your hands busy, if you will,” says Atwood. “We find somewhere else to direct our energy, anger, and feelings.”
While training for a race or joining a running club may not be the most rigorous science-backed solution for sobriety, the risks are low, and the health benefits can be high. Kelley Curley joined the Bulldogs this year and ran the Boston Marathon in April. “It’s really, really hard to do this alone,” says Curley, 31, of being sober, which she’s been for eight years.
“When you’re in the fog of addiction, everything seems scary,” agrees her fellow running mate, Kate, 37, another Bulldog member. (Kate asked that her last name not be used). Before she was sober Kate said the people she spent time with were not good influences. “Everyone I knew was like me,” she says. By hanging out with running teammates rather than enablers she says, “You’re replacing an unhealthy community with a healthy one.” It’s a small change, but for many people, it can be a critical one.