Alcohol: the most abused anxiety drug.
Exercise: the most underutilized anti-depressant.
I don’t remember my parents exercising much, except for the occasional walk after dinner in the summertime. I do not remember going to a gym until I was in college, really. My friends and I would walk over to the rec center after eating in the dining hall and do the stair-master for an hour as we watched the boys play basketball. I remember putting make-up on before we went…that’s a southern girl for ya.
Throughout my drinking life, I continued to exercise on and off, trying all of the trendy new things: kickboxing, aqua-aerobics, soul-cycle, cross-fit, and Pilates, just to name a few. I was the girl next to you on the yoga mat joking about sweating out the “bottle” of wine I drank the night before. You might have thought I was kidding about the bottle, but I wasn’t. I exercised a lot to sweat out booze. To relieve guilt and regret and make up for my self-demolition the night before. It rarely worked.
I got into running for a while, not because I love running, but because I wanted to lose weight. I’ve never gotten a runner’s high, some amazing euphoric experience that made me want to keep running for miles and miles. I was very aware of every stride I took, every single mile I crossed, and if the scale didn’t move after my agonizing runs, I remember being utterly pissed off. My priority wasn’t to feel good; it was to lose weight.
When I first stopped drinking, I had a lot of time to fill from 5 to 8 p.m. That was my witching hour. That was the time when I would normally be drinking wine, slowly sinking into my own little world. Without the wine to depend on to take up that space, I started walking around my neighborhood more. I would eat dinner a little earlier, and then take my dog for a long walk.
What I quickly found was that after my walk, I had zero interest in drinking. The walk was my reward because I felt really proud of myself afterward. Each time I went, it was a little boost to my sober self-confidence. I started listening to some really cool playlists that I could escape with and zone out to, if I wanted.
I also noticed that it made me feel good. Not “high” good, just a calm, hopeful, pat myself on the back kind of feel good. When I exercise, my brain releases dopamine, naturally; unlike wine, which artificially stimulates the dopamine receptor to spill more dopamine. Big difference. There is nothing to “recover” from the next day after a long walk; I actually feel better the morning after.
Now, when I don’t go for walks, I sometimes notice that my mood can be flat or down. So what do I do? I go walking. Even when I don’t want to. Even when it’s sprinkling outside, even when it is hotter than hell. Because you know what? It makes me feel better.
I don’t walk anymore to sweat out booze or to lose weight. The priority is to naturally dump dopamine into my system. With a clear mind, I am also able to process feelings and emotions during my walks. It is great psychotherapy and it is completely free!
I use exercise now as a tool to maintain my sobriety and as a mood lifter. I will no longer sacrifice my mental health for a good buzz. Today, I will choose my happiness over a hangover.