In honor of the Olympics, not to mention the Steamboat Triathlon taking place this weekend, I am looking at athletics and physical health as part of the solution to addiction and other dysfunctions.
Brian Clay, after winning the Gold Medal for decathlon in Beijing, is now hailed as the World’s Greatest Athlete. Anyone watching this part of the Olympics has had a chance to see clips of him at home with his wife and two young children and hear reference to his very troubled youth. It is said that he began to “get in with the wrong crowd”, but found athletics and chose a different pathway. Ato Boldon, former world class sprinter and current commentator at the Olympics, said, “Decathlon was a good way for him to deal with his anger,” referring to Brian Clay’s early participation in the sport, really ten sports, as the venue that helped him through difficult times. Extreme? Certainly, and an excellent lesson.
Many of us have heard similar stories about other less famous men and women using athletics to deal with anger, sadness, depression, rejection, and many other issues. It is true that involvement in anything constructive has an impact on lives, young and old, yet there is something different about physical activities.
Physical exercise stimulates our brain to produce its own antidepressant chemicals, endorphins. Often taking place outside, many physical endeavors allow sunlight to add its own healing properties to our brains and bodies. Vigorous activity leaves us with that wonderful exhaustion, a signal of the goal reached, the fight finished, letting us know we have done something positive for our bodies. A superb release of anger, physical exercise allows us to mimic fighting, pounding, beating, racing, chasing, and feeling strong and able to protect ourselves, giving our all. Whether our own goal is to participate, to compete, to finish an event, or just to increase fitness, doing it is winning. as opposed to, “into thinking about considering to begin to try to possibly start to…, or into b—s—” , into action is the key. Association with other athletes, exposure to the discipline and commitment they demonstrate, and to positive and caring coaches also have an enormous impact and give us examples of some choices for how we want to live. The benefits are physical, emotional, spiritual, and neurochemical.
The “domino effect” occurs: feeling good about our bodies promotes feeling good about ourselves in general, makes us confident, and helps us deal with the thoughts and feelings that trigger substance use and abuse. Certainly not a foolproof solution, athletics can be life-saving when one is at a crossroads and choosing. We all know athletes and very fit people who are also alcoholic or drug-addicted, reminders that while a healthy part of life, physical health is only a part.
What about addicts already into their disease, and even already into recovery? The same applies: physical activity helps improve recovery and assists the addict in embracing the spectrum of life changes we need and deserve to have the best recovery we can. It has been said that all one has to do to recover from addiction is to “not use drugs and change everything about your life.” Addiction depletes the brain of many of its mood stabilizing neurochemicals; the endorphins stimulated by exercise help create equilibrium in our thinking and feeling, and are a huge adjunct to recovery. Another benefit for the addict is replacing old destructive behavior with new constructive activities. Sedentary pastimes are better than destructive activities, but physical pastimes have a multifaceted positive impact. For some, the illegal drugs and alcohol go, but the addictions of overeating, watching television and cigarette smoking take over. If this is the best they can do, they have my respect for going as far as they can. For anyone who is willing to do more and include physical activity in their recovery, I commend them. They are on their way to increasing health in all areas, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
Intimidating at first, beginning a physical exercise program is worth trying and there are those who will help!