A new exercise routine can help you change your relationship with alcohol
It doesn't need to be a hardcore workout — even a walk is effective.
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Many people trying to curb their alcohol use have found that starting a fitness routine helped them maintain sobriety. Among them is St. Paul coach Nell Hurley, who started exercising regularly between AA meetings when she began her 12-step journey more than 20 years ago.
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She leveraged her experience with personal training and addiction recovery to launch Hurley Health, where she combines recovery coaching with fitness and nutrition plans to help clients abstain from or reduce their alcohol and drug use.
For "gray area" drinkers, whose alcohol use isn't at a level appropriate for detox or treatment, creating an exercise routine can be a powerful way to break a habit.
Moving our bodies increases mindfulness around how we're feeling physically and psychologically. It can improve our mental health as well as our sleep. When others are involved in a fitness routine, it can foster a sense of community, too.
Exercise can also be an important tool to counteract what Hurley calls our "incredibly aggressive drinking culture" — especially during a global pandemic, in which more people have turned to alcohol as a way of coping with all the uncertainty.
"Exercise has a positive impact on mental health and reducing anxiety — many of the reasons why people are reaching for alcohol in first place," Hurley said.
Drinking as habit
When people drink to unwind at the end of the day, the habit can quickly become detrimental to their health.
A gray-area drinker, Hurley explained, might regularly have a glass of wine while they cook dinner. Then drink another glass with their meal. And then maybe have one more afterword.
"That person is not an alcoholic, per se, but having three glasses of wine a night is way over the CDC recommendation of seven drinks or less per week for women," she said. "You can be what looks like a casual drinker on the outside, but you're going over that threshold."
Even a temporary break from alcohol can help give a drinker the chance to see what their body feels like without alcohol, she noted. They can also reflect more objectively on their behavior patterns and reasons why they typically turn to alcohol.
Hurley helps clients replace old harmful habits with new healthy ones in her 30-, 60- or 90-day "take a break" programs. She acts as a recovery coach and personal trainer, pairing a weekly 15-minute check-in with a workout in her home studio.
Hurley suggests creating a weekly fitness plan and scheduling workouts during times when the urge to use alcohol is strongest.
"If somebody is drinking out of habit or boredom, then they might think, 'I'm not sure what to do between 5:30 and 7 every night when I usually have a glass of wine or beer.' You could go to a CrossFit class or a yoga class or go for a run or walk to change up your habits."
It doesn't need to be a hardcore workout, she said. Even a walk is effective.
Benefits of exercise
If physical activity were a medicine, "it would be the most helpful medication ever invented," said Dr. Edward Laskowski, a specialist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine at Rochester's Mayo Clinic, who has served on two presidents' councils on physical fitness.
Laskowski often reminds patients to focus on fundamentals of health, such as exercise, which have been studied for decades. Regular physical activity has been proven to prevent or mitigate many health issues, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It also increases energy and improves mood and sleep.
"Sometimes we ignore those foundational things in search of a magic bullet," he said. "Physical activity has a proven benefit."
Laskowski noted how alcohol use can cause long-term harm across the body — damaging the liver, brain and cardiovascular system, as well as increasing obesity for starters.
When used to support sobriety, physical activity can replace the good feelings that drinkers seek by increasing the release of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, Laskowski said. More specifically, dopamine and serotonin help maintain mood and increase our motivation and energy. The endorphins behind a so-called "runner's high" create feelings of pleasure and reduce pain.
A study that Laskowski cited found that when regular exercisers were asked to remain sedentary for a week, they experienced worse mental health. The subjects' moods improved when they returned to their fitness routines.
Hurley noted the irony of how many gray area drinkers reach for alcohol to improve their mood and help them fall asleep — but how, in fact, alcohol can exacerbate depression and reduce restorative sleep.
"In the moment, alcohol reduces your anxiety, but by morning, it makes things worse," Hurley said. "People are using it to address anxiety and stress, and it's causing more anxiety and stress. Alcohol might make you fall asleep a little bit quicker, but then it disrupts your sleep later during the sleep cycle, so you're waking up at three o'clock in the morning and you can't go back to sleep."
Fitness can also build confidence and self-esteem as you set goals and meet them, Hurley said. And creating an exercise practice not only can strengthen a new habit around reducing alcohol use, but help people view their health and well-being more holistically.
"It used to be that the only reason you would not drink at all was because you couldn't — you had a problem with alcohol," she said. Nowadays, people eschew alcohol for the same reasons they're limiting things like meat, sugar or gluten: "They're paying more attention to their health."