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Addiction

How a Stronger Body Can Transform Your Identity

Strength training can aid addiction recovery by changing your self-perception.

Key points

  • Neuroscience research shows that strength training changes how people’s brains function.
  • Research finds that strength training gives people a sense of mastery critical for overcoming addictions.
  • Strength training does not just change you, it also changes how others perceive you which is critical in overcoming the cycle of addiction
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels
“When I first told you about my addiction, I was so scared. I thought “Oh my god, why did I tell her this. I have put our friendship under the bus before it even started”. I used to be open about my addiction, but people judged and treated me differently because of it”. AB, age 42, Kentucky, USA.
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels

Addictions, to alcohol or other substances, are highly stigmatized and it is not uncommon for people to hide that they are currently struggling, or have struggled in the past, with an addiction. Openly sharing your past or present addiction can affect your employment, friendships, and family relations. The stress of this stigma is in itself one of the negative reinforcements that can maintain people in their addictions. Thankfully, there are several established methods for overcoming addictions, including therapy, medication and 12-step programs. However, recovering from an addiction is not just about not abusing a given substance, it is also about changing the way you perceive yourself. In particular, it is about empowering yourself to know that you can achieve your goals and live a fulfilling life. Recently, strength training has emerged as a scientifically-validated method of empowering people with addictions, thereby facilitating their recovery journey.

Below, I recount the stories of two people who were able to redefine who they are and beat their addiction in large part by reconnecting with their bodies through strength training.

Strength training transforms your self-perception and that is what helps in addiction recovery

I first learned about the power of strength training in addiction recovery in the spring of 2021 from a person who was to become a close friend of mine. She told me she was a recovering alcoholic and still attending AA meetings. To her relief, I could share that I had lived with an eating disorder for many years and just recently started identifying as recovered. From the get-go, we had a shared past which brought us together. I learned quickly that my new friend was more than a recovering alcoholic. She was also a published poet, the author of a children’s book, a fantastic journalist, a photographer, and an aspiring lawyer. Yet, the dominant narrative in her own mind was that of a failed college student with an unfulfilled passion for horses who was a misfit in her adoptive family. And most importantly, in this narrative she was a person who had abused and recovered from drug use only to settle on an addiction to alcohol. Alcoholism had had a grip on her life for more than a decade, preceded by a decade of addiction to illegal and prescription drugs.

Since then, my friend has redefined her identity. Instead of thinking of herself as a failed college student and chronic addict, she now sees herself as an aspiring businesswoman, an advocate for recovering addicts, and a horse healer. What made her question the narrative of failure and motivate her to rethink who she could be, who she might already be? Her answer: is CrossFit. CrossFit was not her panacea, in fact, it took over a decade from starting CrossFit until she seriously started thinking of herself differently. But CrossFit did something important: it empowered her, and made her, for the first time, realize that she could do more or less anything with practice and routine. A defining moment, she says, was when “the trainer on my program called me an athlete. They said, 'I want you to think of yourself as an athlete now.' I never thought I could do that, but I did” (AB, age 42, Kentucky). She started being proud of her accomplishment. She was not just a recovering addict, she was an athlete:

“Even though I was sober, I still felt like a mess. CrossFit gave me an outlet, something to focus on. I was so proud of myself. Achieving sobriety was a huge feat and one I will always continue to work on, but it isn't always easy ... to see why it is important. Accomplishments at the gym helped me celebrate sobriety since I actually saw my body physically changing for the better. It was very tangible.”

Around one year after starting her CrossFit practice, her panic attacks started to subside, her sleep improved, and she was able to focus better at work. She knew that alcohol would ruin her CrossFit practice, so at that point, it became easy to forego drinking. It simply was no longer worth it, and more importantly, she no longer needed it.

The science and implementation of strength training in addiction recovery

In recent years, research has demonstrated that strength training reduces depression better than cardio work1, likely due to the release of endorphins, changes in hormonal balances, and possibly because of stabilization of neurotransmitters2. Psychologists theorize that strength training improves people's sense of self-efficacy, and this sense of mastery is a key factor in making exercise, and particularly strength training, so effective in changing people’s mindsets3,4.

William Sturgeon and Saara Raappana are the owners of the gym Restored Strength in Minnesota. They are pioneers in implementing strength training as a route to recovery from mental illness. William told me “strength training helped me see how my behaviors and mindsets were related. I abused drugs to cope with childhood trauma, and I started understanding that drug abuse was really just a maladaptive coping strategy." Strength training became his new coping response, and importantly this coping response was healthy for his mind and his body. As he started using strength training to cope with his trauma, he realized, just like AB did, that he could reach his goals if he practiced. It sounds easy now, but it was not. The point is that strength training gave him a seed of hope in a hopeless life, and it empowered him to give it a shot. William and Saara now help other people struggling with mental illness, including addiction, by implementing strength training as a part of their recovery journey. As he says, "Strength training is like a bridge where you empower people to believe they can do something before they even let go of their addiction and help them believe that they can improve and get better. Strength training is showing us small steps that can bring us forward, in a way you control."

Source: Nappy/Pexels
“I thought to myself “Oh my god, my muscles are changing”. It made me feel like I was doing something useful” AB, age 42, Kentucky, USA.
Source: Nappy/Pexels

Strength training changes how you perceive yourself and how you are perceived by others

Strength training empowers you. But how? Scientifically, we know very little. My friend really started noticing the differences in her self-perception when she could see her muscles grow. The visual feedback from your body may be an important element of how strength training boosts people’s well-being, self-efficacy, and ability to leave behind addictions. Not only are you seeing it, others are too, and this can change how you are treated.

“People started treating me differently, and that was empowering too," AB says. How others perceive you is well known to change your self-perception. We often talk about this in a negative context (e.g., how social media is bad for your body image), but it can be a powerful tool for living a full and wholesome life.

But strength training may change your mind before it leaves a mark on your body. Strength training helps you leave a state of anxiety and step into mindfulness5. Your breathing and heart rate changes, and, according to William, these mental changes allow your body to kickstart the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters and hormones that we know exercise can do:

“Trauma is a situation where choice has been taken away from you. You are forced to submit to what is happening. Strength training gives you the power to choose to actively do something. You get to reclaim your body, that part of you that was missing."

References

1 Palmer JA, Palmer LK, Michiels K, Thigpen B. Effects of type of exercise on depression in recovering substance abusers. Percept Mot Skills. 1995 Apr;80(2):523-30. doi: 10.2466/pms.1995.80.2.523. PMID: 7675585.

2 O’Connor PJ, Herring MP, Caravalho A. Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2010;4(5):377-396. doi:10.1177/1559827610368771

3 McAuley E, Courneya KS, Lettunich J. Effects of acute and long-term exercise on self-efficacy responses in sedentary, middle-aged males and females. Gerontologist. 1991 Aug;31(4):534-42. doi: 10.1093/geront/31.4.534. PMID: 1894158

4 Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned optimism: how to change your mind and your life. 1st Vintage Books ed. New York, NY, Vintage Books.

5 Anderson E, Shivakumar G. Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Front Psychiatry. 2013 Apr 23;4:27. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027. PMID: 23630504; PMCID: PMC3632802.

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