Exercise, Nutrition & Self-Care as Coping Mechanisms During Crisis….

            Life has certainly gotten more complicated for all of us over the last few weeks as the full impact of the Corona Virus becomes clear.  For those in addiction recovery, short or long-term, the impact has resonated in ways that rock the spiritual foundation for many addicts and alcoholics.  Well-accepted pillars of addiction recovery, including reducing isolation, getting to twelve step meetings and engaging in fellowship with others, are no longer recommended for a simple reason:  they are no longer safe.   For most of our country and the world, getting out and actively engaging in twelve step meetings or fellowship would likely result in violating shelter-in-place orders.   The sudden need to not only accept what you cannot change but embrace it right now at risk of death, presents an unprecedented challenge. 

Liquor Stores and Marijuana Dispensaries are Essential Businesses

At the same time, while most businesses are closed, in New York State and many others, liquor stores remain open as they have been designated as “essential”.  Patrons can call in orders to bars and have their favorite cocktails delivered.  In Colorado and other states where marijuana is legal, non-medicinal marijuana dispensaries also remain open and have been declared “essential.”  According to the market research firm Nielsen for the week ending March 22, 2020, hard liquor sales were up 75%, wine sales up 66% and beer up 42%.   Online liquor sales were also up 243%.  Sales are up at marijuana dispensaries and in the pornography industry.  In a country where so many cope with crisis by numbing themselves with addictive substances or behaviors, those seeking to maintain their sobriety seem even more isolated and alone.  A.A., N.A. and other major recovery communities have moved meetings and other types of support online.   There are twelve step meetings offered via zoom and other platforms almost 24/7.  However, online meetings and other traditional recovery modalities do not necessarily support the physical health.  That’s where using this time of shelter-in-place to develop a self-care lifestyle can benefit you in the short and long-term.  

Cranford, NJ, USA March 28, 2020 A sign in a park in Cranford, New Jersey reminds walkers and bikers on the trail to keep their social distance

Self-Care, Your Sobriety and the Pandemic

Studies show that those who integrate a self-care lifestyle, including exercise and nutrition, into their recovery, have much higher rates of success.  Exercise can prompt the brain to regenerate dopamine receptors, reduce cravings for alcohol and drug, prompt the body to produce “feel good” hormones like endorphins[i].   The reason, exercise stimulatea the dopaminergic reward pathway and contribute to a reduction in levels of stress, anxiety and depression, all of which are prevalent in people who identify as being in recovery[ii].  In fact, some researchers have identified a correlation between exercise-related activity and the ability to cope with stress and anxiety in order to stay sober[iii].  The positive outcomes increase exponentially for those who also integrate healthy eating[iv].   It turns out your Mother was right all along: “you are what you eat” and “move a muscle, change a thought”.   Advice for those in recovery regarding exercise routines and healthy nutrition, specific to the addiction recovery, is not so easy to come by.   Here are some recommendations, all evidence-based, that folks in recovery can try during the shelter-in-place.  Time at home over the next couple of weeks or months can be used for one of two purposes.   To reinforce negative behaviors that will drag you back to addiction or develop positive new habits that affirm the desire to maintain your sobriety, even in these most challenging circumstances.    

Exercise Recommendations:

            Although shelter-in-place and social distancing have changed how and when you can exercise, some good old-fashioned ways have resurfaced.  Walking, probably the most under-appreciated form of workout, is becoming very popular.   Put on your mask and gloves and walk around the block, to the store or go to a park.   You can even invite someone to join you:  I call that “green fellowship.”  Even five minutes a day or regular waking has been shown to improve self-esteem and mood!  Studies show outdoor workouts increase the benefits you receive compared to indoor workouts[v].  Almost every day I take a walk or a bike ride through a park or along a river or lake.   Just like I never feel worse after attending a twelve step meeting, I’ve always feel better when I get home from my morning workout!   If you can develop the habit of walking in the morning, it will help put you in a positive mind-set all day long.   Take advantage  of green spaces, fresh air and lack of crowds during the shelter-in-place and you might just get “addicted” to this positive habit[vi].

Nutritional Recommendations:

            Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, created a list of the “go to’ foods for alcoholics which undercut their sobriety.  He referred to these foods as “The sister foods” to alcohol.  They are French fries, potatoes, white rice, pasta, soda and refined sugar.  The reason you want to avoid these foods is they are all calorie rich, but nutrient deficient, just like alcohol.   They prompt your body to overproduce dopamine and other feel good hormones in an unsustainable way.  This creates fluctuations in blood sugar and mood, just like alcohol and other substances did in active addiction.   Here’s my recommendations for healthier alternatives:  instead of french fries, sweet potato fries; instead of potatoes, yams or sweet potatoes, instead of white rice, whole grain or brown rice; instead of a starchy pasta, try a vegetable-based pasta, instead of refined sugar, honey; instead of soda with refined sugar, tonic or seltzer with fresh fruit to add flavor These are simple dietary changes that can lead to profound changes in your body, mind and spirit during shelter-at-home and beyond.   

Spiritual Recommendations:

            In our society, which requires almost everyone to multi-task and juggle many responsibilities simultaneously, shelter-at-home is a chance to breathe.  If you can frame this opportunity to be home with family or just yourself as a positive one, you can appreciate the opportunity to reflect on your life and sobriety.  In the context of nutrition, exercise and your recovery, the chance to reflect and journal is an opportunity that may not come again once things return to “normal.”   It’s an opportunity to make conscious contact with your body, by integrating the Twelve Steps into what you eat and how much you exercise.   Journaling will be even more impactful if you have applied the specific nutrition and exercise recommendations referenced earlier in this article.  

Conduct a Fourth or Tenth Step inventory on how what you eat and the amount you exercise impact your health and sobriety.   Here are some suggested questions:  How does what I eat make me feel?   Do I tend to eat emotionally and why?   Do I tend to eat late at night, if so, why?  Do I eat many of the sister foods to alcohol?  If so, how can I modify what I am eating?  Do I eat to numb emotions or avoid dealing with them?  Do I eat at my problems?  If so, how can I better handle these emotions or problems?  

Now apply the Tenth Step to exercise or the lack of exercise in your life.   Does my lack of movement impact how I feel?   How has my lack of exercise impacted my health?  How has lack of exercise impacted my sobriety?    How can I better integrate exercise into my daily life?    If you have gone out for walks as I recommended, try these questions:  How do I feel after I go for a walk, better or worse?   What did I enjoy most about going to the park today?   What type of exercise can I commit to when I go back to work?  Where can I work in exercise in my daily routine (use stairs rather than elevator)?  

Conclusion:

            Don’t make the mistake so many Americans are making by choosing to numb yourself with alcohol, drugs, food, sex or other addictive behaviors during the next couple of weeks or months.  Use shelter-at-home and social distancing as valuable “me” time to reflect on your relationship with food, exercise and your spiritual life.   Keep an open mind and try these simple recommendations that can transform not only your sobriety but allow you to make conscious contact with your body, improve your physical health help foster a more positive outlook on life.     For lots of ideas that can benefit you during these difficult days, visit www.spiritualadrenaline.com.  

About the author:

Tom Shanahan is a civil rights attorney who lives in New York.  He is also a personal trainer and certified in sports nutrition.   He is the Author of Spiritual Adrenaline: Strengthen & Nourish Your Recovery, published by Central Recovery Press.  Spiritual Adrenaline teaches people in recovery how to integrate exercise and nutrition into their twelve step practice.  


[i] C.L. Robertson, et al., “Effect of Exercise Training on Striatal Dopamine D2/D3 Receptors in Methamphetamine Users during Behavioral Treatment,” Neuropsychopharamacology 41 (2016): 1629-36.

[ii] A.H. Taylor, et al., “Acute effect of exercise on alcohol urges and attentional bias towards alcohol related images in high alcohol consumers,” Mental Health and Physical Activity, 6, no. 3 (2013), 220-26. 

[iii] S. Strode, et al., “impact of aerobic exercise training on cognitive functions and effect, associated to the COMT polymorphism in young adults,” Nuerobiology of Learning and Memory 94, no. 3, (2010): 364-72, cited by K. Blum, S. Teitelbaum, M. Oscar, Molecular Neurobiology of Addiction Recovery: The 12 Steps Program and Fellowship (New York Springer Publications, 2013): 26.

[iv] J.L. Medina, et al., “Exercise-related activities are associated with positive outcome in contingency management treatments for substance abuse disorders,” Addictive Behaviors 33 (2008): 1072-75.       

[v] J.O. Barron and J. Pretty, “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis,” Environmental Science and Technology, 44 (2010);: 3947-55.

[vi] J. Thompson Coon, “Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review,” Environmental Science and Technology, 45 (2011): 1761-72.