7 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Working Out While in Recovery

We tend to be all-or-nothing types of people, but we can go overboard with the good stuff, too.

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May 30 2018, 4:00pm

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I was a 307-pound binge-drinking, binge-eating addict when I hit rock bottom in 2003—a case study in how not to treat a human body. By 2007, a few years into recovery, I was happily maintaining a healthy weight, free of the vice grip of addiction. Today, I’m a certified personal trainer and wellness coach who works with “normies” and people with addiction alike.

Once the symptoms of withdrawal were behind me, I remember waking up one morning in early recovery feeling like a superhero. Not sick or hungover for the first time in years, I needed something to do with all the energy pounding through my veins. I decided to channel that energy into parts of my health that I’d been neglecting. I started going to the gym, stopped compulsively eating mass quantities of trash, and did a bunch of other crazy shit—like getting good sleep and drinking plain water.

Being in my body since I began caring for and about it has felt amazing. If you’re in recovery and you’re ready to make general wellness a priority, here’s some advice that I wish someone had given me when I started.

If You're an All-or-Nothing type, Accept It

We addicts tend to be all-or-nothing types of people, and not just when it comes to drugs and alcohol. We can go overboard with the good stuff, too: Back when I started my fitness kick, well-meaning friends told me to tone down my daily regimen—two recovery meetings, a two-hour workout, and a whole-foods-only nutrition plan. They were afraid I’d burn out, but what they didn’t understand was that the only way I can make something—including health—part of my life was to go all in. If you’re similarly inclined, do yourself a favor and read up on exercise best practices and evidence-based research around nutrition. Then, if and when you burn out—it happens—laugh it off and start again at a more sustainable pace.

Rethink Your Rewards

It might sound motivating to say, "If I hit my cardio goals three days this week, I'll reward myself," but the danger is that it can make cardio—or whatever your workout is—feel like a bullshit obligation. Remember when life felt like a bullshit obligation, and the reward was the drink, hit, or fix waiting once you checked all the boxes? Yeah, I lived that way for a long time, too. The best decision I made after getting sober was to not use that distant, unrelated reward-based cycle in sobriety. In recovery, I’ve discovered that the satisfaction and pleasure of living well in the moment is the greatest reward. The same is true with exercise: Try focusing on the mental and physical peace and empowerment you feel during and immediately after a solid strength training session. Notice and appreciate the deep pleasure that only exercise can bring. Do that, and you’ll have an easier time developing a fitness habit for life.


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Table the Long-Term Goals

The slogan “One Day at a Time” can help folks like us stay sober for life. Why? Because we have an easier time doing something for one day that we couldn’t fathom doing for a week, never mind for the rest of time. Focusing on just “today” doesn’t just help us stay sober; it can also help us meet other long-term goals like losing weight and increasing endurance. I used to weigh more than 300 pounds, but focusing on today has helped me keep off more than 150 pounds for 13 years (and counting). Like me, you only have the power to make strong choices today, so set and focus on goals you can meet before bedtime. Set attainable, meaningful daily goals and the long-term payoffs will accumulate the way everything in life does: one day at a time.

Develop One Healthy Daily Habit

With a few exceptions, people who live with addiction tend to lock into daily patterns. And once we’ve broken with a destructive pattern, there tends to be a huge hole in the fabric of our days. Meetings, therapy, and fellowship with other people in recovery can help fill this hole, but sometimes not all the way. Exercise was the perfect daily supplement to the work I was doing on my heart and my head in recovery, but I kept hearing not to “overdo it” by lifting weights every day. I call bullshit: Unless you’re training hard—olympic lifts, hardcore sprints, etc—there’s no good reason not to exercise in whatever way works and feels good to you. If you’re anything like me, your full, sober life is bound to get in the way at some point, and you’ll end up doing three to five workouts a week, anyway. When that happens, again, laugh it off and ease into a more sustainable pace.

Ask the Right Questions of the Right People

Not drinking or using drugs is pretty novel stuff, and if you’re anything like I was in early recovery, so is exercising and giving a shit about what you eat. As you work to create a healthier new “normal” for yourself and your body, remember not to lean too heavily on any one person— especially as your needs grow and change. You don’t necessarily want to go running to your AA sponsor for workout tips, and it might not be appropriate to ask your shrink for a nutrition plan. Instead, do your own research and find the right support people. Then, when you need guidance, go to the one who’s certified, licensed, or experienced enough to help.

Deal With Addictions in the Order They're Killing You

When I finally put down the bottle, pie, and pills, I immediately picked up a man, a coffee, and a cigarette. While these were somewhat less dangerous than the crutches they replaced, they still weren’t doing me any favors. But this isn’t true of all substitute addictions. Getting “hooked” on fitness may sound less than ideal, but in my case the benefits far outweighed the handful of problems they created—namely, where to workout, and what the hell to wear. If you feel like diving face first into a wellness regimen, whether it’s yoga, weights, or line dancing, don’t let the moderation-pushers temper your fire. Just do your best to be safe, sane, and always use your best (sober) judgment.

Remember What You're Capable Of

In the early days of my wellness kick, life sometimes got messy and stressful, and the idea of hitting the gym and cooking for myself felt difficult to impossible. When stress threatened to sabotage the commitments I’d made to myself and my health, I would take a minute to remember how strong I was. I’d been mentally and physically trapped in the abject insanity of addiction for years and years, and I’d pulled myself out of self-destruction. I'd done a 180-degree turn out of hell and was living my best life. If I could do that, I thought, could I maybe work up the steam to get my ass to the gym? Maybe buy some protein and veggies, apply heat, and chow down? Hell yes I could. And I did. And so can you, love. So you can you.

Kelly Coffey is an ACSM-certified personal trainer, motivational speaker, and host of the free workshop "Why We Sabotage Ourselves With Food and What We Can Do About It."

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