It’s President’s Day, and I just got back from my morning walk along the Esplanade, a beautiful walking/jogging trail about 3 miles from my home. This was a picture perfect morning, the sun was out and the air was crystal clear – one of those beautiful Southern California winter mornings when the folks visiting from back East resolve to put up their homes for sale and move out here. Being a holiday, it seems that everyone was out on the trail – moms pushing their babies in strollers, couples running with their dogs, beautiful women jogging with their ponytails swaying in the breeze, and a large sprinkling of seniors in their 70s, 80s and beyond.
I’ve been walking for cardiovascular fitness and general physical conditioning for the past two decades. Whenever possible, I make it a point to walk in nature to help me clear my mind and renew my acquaintance with my higher power. On weekends, my wife and I love to go hiking in the nearby desert at Joshua Tree National Park, or stroll down the cliffs to the beach at Torrey Pines, just north of San Diego. On weekends when I am not able to break away for an all-day outing, I love to hike the challenging hills of Peters Canyon, a county park about 7 miles from my home, which somehow manages to bring the serenity of the desert to the heart of suburban Orange County.
My passion for exercise dates back to the early 1980s, when I was teaching health education at Cal. State, Fullerton and decided to practice what I was preaching. The health enhancement benefits of regular vigorous exercise are legend, in terms of dramatically improving our cardiovascular endurance, allowing us to release accumulated stresses from our bodies, and promoting increased vitally and well-being. Equally important are the benefits associated with regular exercise in promoting long term sobriety maintenance. Significantly, in my own research which focused on the association between adherence to a wellness-oriented lifestyle and successfulness of recovery, a full 52% of the subjects who successfully maintained sobriety following completion of primary treatment reported that they exercised on a regular basis, compared with only 28% of subjects who subsequently relapsed to their former patterns of drinking and drug use.
There are many forms of exercise available to choose from – including brisk walking, running, swimming, bicycling and playing vigorous sports, such as tennis or hand-ball – to name a few. Brisk walking is an ideal form of exercise for many folks like myself, as it is easy to do wherever you happen to be, does not strain the back or ankles, and promotes increased cardiovascular endurance when practiced on a regular basis. Get a good pair of walking or running shoes, begin walking for 10-15 minutes a day (or whatever pace initially feels comfortable), and gradually build your walking sessions up to 45 minutes, 5-7 days a week. You should also add several minutes of stretching exercises to your daily routine (yoga is excellent), and ideally work some resistance training into your schedule at least twice a week.
Does this sound like a major commitment in terms of time and energy? Perhaps – but remember, you are investing in your health and well-being, as well as in the quality of your sobriety. As a wellness professional, I am firmly convinced that most people can easily add years, and in some cases even decades, to their life expectancies by adopting the exercise regimen I am recommending here. The key is to choose a form of exercise that you enjoy (otherwise you won’t stick with it), and give yourself a month or two to fully phase into your chosen program. If you are over 40 or have a history of significant health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure, be sure to get appropriate medical clearance before embarking on any exercise routine.
A parting thought – if you really care about yourself and your loved ones, then you owe it to yourself to roll up your sleeves and commit yourself to a regular exercise program. Hope to see you on the walking trail!
John Newport (Dr. John) is author of “The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction” (Health Communications, Inc. 2004). He was a keynote presenter at the Crossroads Alumni Reunion in November, 2006 and is available to provide trainings, staff in-services and program consultation on a wide range of topics relating to wellness and recovery.