Why People in Recovery Often Find Motivation in Fitness

About six months ago, Selina Burzler went to a friend's house for a dinner party. The next thing she knew, she was waking up, bleary-eyed in her own apartment. "I was home, and the bike I went to dinner with was there, but I had no recollection of the journey," Burzler tells PS. "I lost all my credit cards and my ID. That was the day I decided, it can't go this way anymore."

That week, she confessed the true extent of her substance use to her therapist. "I told her, 'I want to live a sober life,'" Burzler says. Ten months before, she had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which helped Burzler reframe her urges to use substances and alcohol as part of "a constant chase for dopamine." (Dopamine, a chemical produced in the brain, can function like a "reward center," and research shows those with ADHD tend to have lower levels of dopamine in general).

Burzler and her therapist began looking for constructive routines and activities to undercut the cravings she was still feeling, while also allowing for healthy boosts of dopamine.

One of the first things Burzler tried was running. "I figured: 'I need a goal. I need to get my dopamine from somewhere. I've always wanted to run the half marathon, why not now?'" the now-30-year-old remembers thinking. Quickly, running became a meditative practice for Burzler. "Now, any time I have cravings, I put on my shoes, and I run," she says.
Like Burzler, many people with substance use disorders find solace in fitness while getting sober, says Scott Strode, who's in long-term recovery from substance use and who started a national sober active community called The Phoenix, which is free for anyone who's been sober for 48 hours.

Strode says fitness can help folks who are on sobriety journeys and in active treatment for several reasons: movement has "transformational" mental health and physical benefits, but it also brings people together in an accepting, non-judgemental community.

"Fitness can be a distraction in some ways," he says. "Sometimes we're in our own heads so much about what's not going well in our life or our recovery." Facing the adversity of a challenging fitness activity — whether that's running a marathon or strength training at the gym — especially alongside someone else makes a bigger difference than you might think, Strode explains.

The Mind-Body Connection

The health benefits of exercise have been touted time and time again — from better sleep and stronger bones to improved mood and reduced depression. When it comes to recovery and exercise, the side effects are no different.

A 2023 study found that people who jogged and did weight training while in addiction treatment were more likely to reduce their substance use than folks who did not, per PLOS One. The research didn't conclude exactly why, but it seems there were physical, emotional, and brain-based benefits that led to positive change.

"Before, I would cope with my pain by drinking and using, but as I started getting into athletics, I started rewiring my brain so that those activities became my coping mechanism."

Burzler can attest to this, noting that exercise (especially outside) provided an immediate boost in mood. One theory as to why that is: exercise increases levels of a chemical responsible for brain cell growth which encourages the release of dopamine, as one study performed on rodents in The Journal of Neuroscience found. A 2021 review in Brain Sciences similarly found that various forms of exercise had a positive impact on dopamine. So, you can reap benefits whether you're jogging, walking, or or playing pickleball.

Meanwhile, you've probably heard about runner's highs, which occur when "feel good" hormones called endorphins are released as you hit your stride. "Running has been a really healing journey," Burzler says. "It usually feels like the only time I'm not having a thousand thoughts racing through my head. It's just me and my shoes and my thoughts."

Meanwhile, Strode says movement and exercise helped him redirect subconscious neural pathways related to early childhood trauma at the root of his substance use. Research confirms that exercise seems to enhance neuroplasticity, which is essentially the brain's way of reorganizing thought patterns, particularly after a trauma or an injury. "Before, I would cope with my pain by drinking and using, but as I started getting into athletics, I started rewiring my brain so that those activities became my coping mechanism," he says. "When I was having a tough day, instead of stopping into the bar that I used to go into, I would actually throw on my running shoes because I'd started to get this positive reinforcement — because of the endorphins and the brain chemistry and the power of exercise, I would often finish that run totally forgetting why I was so stressed going into it and having reset my mental state."

Of course, hitting the gym instead of the bar can be a hard choice to make when you're in the throes of addiction. "When you start worrying about life and having old emotional material come up, it can become overwhelming and it's easy to default to picking up a drink to quiet that voice or numb that pain," Strode says. That's where the other beneficial aspects of a fitness routine come in: structure and community.

Structure Becomes Grounding

Having a regular fitness routine in place means at least a chunk of your day is already carved out and accounted for. This can help break the cycle of scheduling around using. In a small study looking at the habits and routines of people in early recovery from substance use, one of the themes researchers noticed was that time that was unaccounted for was often the most difficult part of the day, and that unoccupied and unstructured time could cause people to return to their old habits.

Strode knows this need to develop a new routine well. "When you get into recovery, you're taking away so many things from your normal routine," he says. "Your active addiction, the people who you drank and used with, the time and process you dedicated to your using. Having structure and something positive to fill those spaces is healing for your self-esteem and can be transformational."

"When I was drinking, I know I structured my life around enabling that behavior," he adds. That meant he needed to fill his time with something more fortifying, which led him straight to boxing.

At the start of his recovery, Strode practiced every day, seven-days-a-week. "I immersed myself in it to fill as much time as I could," he says. "I would spend an hour training, and then help coach and hold mitts for other people. I knew that wasn't the ideal balance, but between that and my addiction, that was better for me." After the first year, he dropped down to 5 days-a-week and included some rest and active recovery days. Meanwhile, Burzler found solace in training for the Berlin half marathon, training most days. And Chris Thistle, 38, found rock climbing at The Phoenix in Massachusetts helped.

"They have this huge rock wall — it can feel like a puzzle to get up there," Thistle says. "It gets you thinking, and you're building strength. You're climbing to the top, one hand-hold at a time. It's the same way with recovery," Thistle says. "You're taking it one day at a time, climbing your way back out of a hole to build a better life — a better self."

The Power of Community

Whether you're a jogger joining a running club, or helping out the person next to you at CrossFit with their deadlift form, you're probably connecting with others at some point, often in a way that's more meaningful than it might be with people you meet at parties.

"When I was in my active addiction, when the music was gone and the party was over and the booze stopped flowing, a lot of those friendships ended too," Strode says. "When you're exercising together, the relationships formed are so much deeper. Because you're really pushing through a challenge together, those people are more likely to be there for you through other hard things."

"Fitness is a way to get that social life, without having to find it in a dark place."

Thistle agrees, noting that the community he found rock climbing and joining in other activities like yoga at The Phoenix made a huge difference.

"About five years ago, I was using opiates, and I ended up getting clean for a while, but then ended up falling to alcohol," he tells PS. "Back then, I had no sense of community, and that's what I think brought me back into the bars. It was the only thing that I could think of that would give me a sense of community… As human beings, we're social creatures, and we need others in our lives. Fitness is a way to get that social life, without having to find it in a dark place."

Fitness friends also bring an aspect of accountability. If you don't show up to a workout, your CrossFit friends are going to worry about you, Strode says.

Early on, the people you meet at the gym can make a major difference in how you keep at it. Torry Russell, 33, started going to Orangetheory workout classes while she was struggling with alcohol use disorder. She says it was the friendly people and community that kept her coming back, even when she didn't want to. She ultimately credits the experience with being key to her getting sober. "Now, whenever I see new people, I make a point to say hello," she says. "I ask: 'Is this your first class? You're gonna do great!' You never know what little thing might make or break it for them, and or what journey they're on in their own lives.

Balance Remains Critical

Movement clearly has some potentially powerful impacts on recovery, but it's not uncommon for people to worry they're replacing one high with another, or becoming too reliant on exercise as a coping strategy. Like substance use, exercise can become an addiction or an issue if it's impacting your health, your life, or your relationships negatively, Strode says.

Burzler has reflected on this phenomenon. Last year, she injured her foot, which impacted her ability to run long distances. "Looking back, I could have listened to my body more," she says. "It was hard because I wanted that dopamine, so I mostly trained through it." It's important to listen to your body in instances like this, to avoid rewarding damaging or dangerous behavior. At least that's what helped Louise Green, a certified personal trainer in Canada and founder of Big Fit Girl who's been sober for 24 years.

Although there can be a "correlation" between recovery and fitness, Green says she found that her sobriety journey didn't have to define her relationship with exercise or be a stand-in for addiction. The key was staying mindful in her activities, noticing her body's response to them, and why she was really doing them.

"There was a time I was training for a long-distance cycling event, and I was very rigid and punitive about it," Green remembers. "I told myself: 'You're doing this no matter what—no matter how sick you feel, no matter how hot it is.' As an addict, I think you become accustomed to suffering, and that can translate into other areas, and that was showing up for me." It took Green years and intention to eventually "weed out that addiction experience."

"I don't have that relationship with exercise anymore, and I've come a long way in trying to get rid of that black-and-white thinking," she says.

Burzler went through a similar realization. Now, she prioritizes listening to her body and noticing signs to give herself grace. "I'm trying to work harder now to understand the breaking points of my body, and when it's time to slow down," she tells PS.

Burzler's Berlin Half Marathon is coming up in April, and she's thrilled at her progress — both in training and in staying sober. "My relationships and my life have changed so much, but in this very wholesome, wonderful way," she says.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services (SAMHSA) has resources available including a national 24/7 helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also send your zip code via text to 435748 (HELP4U) for treatment referral and information services.

Molly Longman is a freelance journalist who loves to tell stories at the intersection of health and politics. Molly enjoys hiking, public records, and looking at cow videos on Instagram. She's originally from Iowa.