How Exercise, Nutrition, and Relaxation Can Help People Stay Sober

Man tying his athletic shoe

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Relaxation, exercise, and better nutrition can improve the physical and emotional health of people recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction and—in their own way—help prevent relapse.

Let's face it: If you progressed to the point of seeking professional treatment or rehab for your alcohol or drug problem, you probably were not getting a lot of physical exercises and you definitely were not eating as healthy as you should. Improving in these areas can contribute to a healthier lifestyle and can help you remain abstinent.

The Benefits of Relaxation and Recreation During Recovery

Studies have found that people who engage in regular exercise are less likely to misuse drugs. Becoming involved in a recreational or physical activity can benefit your recovery by reducing the stress that can be a trigger for relapse. It also can help reduce boredom, which for some is a key relapse trigger, and benefit you emotionally by restoring a sense of balance to your life.

Of course, becoming more active will simply help you feel better physically and improve your overall health. This can aid your recovery by lessening the severity of any post-acute withdrawal symptoms that may re-occur.

Gradually Incorporate Physical Activity

If you have not been physically active at all for a long time, you should check with your doctor or healthcare provider before beginning any exercise program. You may want to ease into whatever physical exercise that you choose to keep from overdoing it early and becoming discouraged.

Becoming physically active does not mean that you have to begin training to become a world-class athlete. You can just take a daily walk in your neighborhood or in the mall, take your kids to play in the park, ride a bicycle, or pick up a sport you once enjoyed like tennis, softball or basketball.

The goal is to get more active at a level that you are comfortable with and make progress in improving your health.

The Effect of Poor Eating Habits in Alcoholics and Drug Users

Hand in hand with physical activity in developing a healthy lifestyle is good nutrition. If you are like most alcoholics and addicts, you spent so much time with your drug of choice that you often failed to eat properly.

Research shows that many alcoholics suffer from some level of malnutrition, including a lack of magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamin C. Many of the drugs on the street today suppress the appetite. Consequently, many people who enter professional alcohol and drug rehab programs have skipped many meals simply because they did not feel hungry.

Poor eating habits in alcoholics have been found to increase the risk of or exacerbate the following medical conditions:

  • Liver Disease: Alcoholic liver damage is caused primarily by alcohol itself, but poor nutrition may increase the risk of alcohol-related liver damage.
  • Pancreatitis: There is some research that suggests that alcohol's damaging effect on the pancreas may be exacerbated by a protein-deficient diet.
  • Brain Damage: Nutritional deficiencies can have severe and permanent effects on brain function. Specifically, thiamine deficiencies, often seen in alcoholics, can cause severe neurological problems.
  • Pregnancy Complications: Alcohol itself is toxic to the fetus, but accompanying nutritional deficiency can affect fetal development, perhaps compounding the risk of developmental damage, research shows. Not only can nutritional deficiencies of an alcoholic mother adversely affect the nutrition of the fetus, but drinking alcohol can restrict nutrition flow to the fetus.

The Importance of Good Nutrition in Maintaining Sobriety

Like physical activity, good nutrition helps with your recovery by lessening any post-acute withdrawal symptoms you may experience. It helps rebuild a body worn down by alcohol or drug use.

If you are in follow-up care from your rehab program, you will probably be asked about your usual eating habits and how much you know about good nutrition. Your current diet choices will be considered so that proper steps to eat more healthy and feel better in your recovery can be suggested.

The key is to eat a balanced diet, following the dietary guidelines and choosing food from the different food groups—meat, poultry, and fish; dairy products; fruits and vegetables; and bread and grains. It is recommended that you eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. 

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  1. Smith MA, Lynch WJ. Exercise as a potential treatment for drug abuse: evidence from preclinical studiesFront Psychiatry. 2012;2. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00082

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