The Importance of Fitness in Addiction and Mental Health Recovery by John Gillen (Director Rehab Clinics Group)
Have you ever wondered if the familiar act of simple exercise could have a positive impact on our minds, as
well as our bodies? The quick answer is, of course, yes. Participating in some form of fitness, no matter how
mild, has proven to provide great mental health benefits across varying age groups in populations of different
My name is John Gillen, I’m the director of one the UK’s leading residential rehabilitation centres and a former alcohol addict. Like many others, my alcohol dependency spiralled out of control, ruining my relationships with friends and family, negatively effecting my performance at work, and damaging my physical and mental health. At this point, I made the best decision I’ve ever made; I opened up and asked for help.
I visited a rehabilitation centre and was successfully treated for my alcohol addiction utilising a wide variety of techniques including fitness. Private residential alcohol and drug rehab treatment centres offer effective
evidence-based rehab and detox programmes that focus on healing your mind and body for true long-lasting
addiction recovery. These centres demonstrate a great number of individuals who have benefitted from
regular exercise combined with good nutrition which has significantly aided their addiction and mental health
recovery process. Studies have shown a 20% to 30% lower risk of depression and dementia for adults
participating in physical activity – isn’t that amazing!
Unfortunately, a common side effect of mental health issues is substance misuse. Exercising can be a fantastic distraction for those who are suffering, as well as significantly reducing those unwanted cravings. I see more and more addiction rehabilitation programmes now including exercise as an integral part of their treatment regime. You can join your local gym and embark on a fitness regime yourself – just wait for the fantastic results to follow! Participating in regular fitness has been proven to help prevent the development of mental health problems as well as combat them, not to mention improving your overall quality of life. I experienced first-
hand the stress relief which regular exercise brings, easing my addiction symptoms.
What are the benefits of frequent fitness?
- Improves your life expectancy
- Encourages weight loss which in turn improves your self-esteem and confidence
- You will feel more energetic as your body and your organs gets stronger
- Your productivity will enhance, and you’ll enjoy a better quality of life free from addiction
- You will find yourself sleeping for longer and much deeper, resulting in a well-rested morning rather than feeling tired and irritated
Even after low to moderate exercise such as walking, stretching, or swimming, your mind will feel much
clearer, allowing you to redirect your thinking patterns away from the struggles of addiction. These same
endorphins sharpen your mind, improving your memory and concentration. I can’t emphasise enough how all
of the above greatly contributes towards your journey to recovery from alcohol or drugs; the importance of
physical activity is paramount.
As a sufferer of alcohol addiction, I started to crave more knowledge on the causes of addiction. This led me to
educate myself on psychology and spirituality, allowing me to understand how addiction develops and how it
can best be treated (fitness is a vital part of this recovery). All of this was the inspiration behind the successful
book the secret disease of addiction. I continue to highlight this as so often exercise is overlooked when trying
to improve your mental well-being. You may not realise that our GP’s in the UK are now including exercise as
part of a treatment plan to tackle depression and anxiety. Research shows that we feel much more positive,
content and calm after exercising as opposed to periods of inactivity such as watching TV. I appreciate from my
own experience that addiction and mental health are extremely complex battles, regular fitness is just one
crucial aspect of your journey to recovery, but it certainly is crucial.
What actually goes on inside your body and mind during and after physical exercise?
- You’re developing your muscles and expending the build-up of natural energies
- This helps to stimulate your central nervous system, releasing endorphins which then suppress your perception of pain and improve your mood. So far so good!
- Serotonin is released into your bloodstream which gives you that “feel-good” reaction of feeling happy and content
Frequent fitness also helps to release melatonin and cortisol which balance your hormones responsible for suppressing or increasing your appetite, meaning you’ll be able to regulate your food intake properly to better avoid eating disorders
It’s important to find the physical activity which best suits you, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, individually or in a team, or mild or high intensity. I do have some simple ways to slowly begin adding physical activity into
your daily regime which will help to improve your mental health or addiction recovery. If you’re new to
exercise, it’s completely reasonable to start small with some slow stretching throughout the day. You may
want to then add in a few 10-minute bursts of squats or sit ups or take a short walk on your lunch break. I also
find it can really help to get yourself a fitness friend where you motivate each other to achieve your goals. You
could also join a gym and follow a tailored workout programme led by a professional coach to get faster
results. All of this gets you on the right path to successfully achieving long-term recovery from addiction and
mental health issues, and it all starts with getting you moving.
I strongly believe that exercise should be promoted as an extremely valuable tool in aiding recovery. There are
fantastic gym facilities out there who can support you along the way. If like I was, you or a loved one is seeking
effective, healthy support for addiction or mental health issues, then consistent physical activity is an excellent
Fitness truly does play an incredibly important role in addiction and mental health recovery. Just look at my
journey from professional businessman, to alcohol addict, to now, educating others on the importance of
fitness in addiction and mental health recovery. There’s no time to waste when it comes to leading a happier,
healthier life. Get active today!