by A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP
Part 1 of this 2-part series focused on the importance getting a good night’s sleep in recovery from addiction. Here, in the second part of this series, we focus on exercise and nutrition.
The three components of fitness are endurance (of the heart-lungs, or “cardio”), strength and flexibility. The benefits of having a basic level of fitness are numerous: improved mood (lower stress), weight loss, prevention of many health problems, more energy, etc. Sleep also improves with exercise. The components of SEN can work together in a mutually reinforcing upward spiral of healthy living.
If you have not been exercising regularly the simplest way to begin probably is walking. Of course, if you are under a physician’s care (or should be) it would be foolish to begin any significant change in activity without medical advice. Beyond walking, the availability of gyms, personal trainers, exercise equipment, websites, classes, organizations and self-help books is staggering.
I recommend keeping it simple. In my own case a pair of running shoes (replaced every six months), a few light dumbbells, a pull-up bar, a wall to stretch against or next to, and a copy of Heavyhands: The ultimate exercise system by Leonard Schwartz provide a framework for basic physical activity. In this system I never need to leave the house (except to run or walk), making it time efficient. The initial and ongoing expenses are minimal. The best exercises, however, are the ones you will actually do!
Of the three components of SEN nutrition is the most complex and the most rapidly changing. However, the cost-benefit analysis of nutrition is straightforward: We are what we eat. Most of us get too many calories, and not enough nutrients. Worse, we already know these facts, and we aren’t changing them! Where does one turn for reasonable advice?
You could start by reading the Nutrition Facts label on most food packages. Observe, even record, what you are getting and not getting nutritionally throughout the day. Free basic nutrition information, from an organization that is not selling anything, is available from the Centers for Disease Control (cdc.gov). If you are willing to spend some time and money, get a college nutrition textbook (e.g., Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies, by Sizer and Whitney). You could consult a Registered Dietician (RD) for personalized advice. Be wary of “nutritionists” who have no credentials. The RD is the accepted credential in this field. Just as pharmacists typically know more than physicians about drugs and drug interactions, RDs know more about food, food interactions, and food/drug interactions.
I recommend against following the breaking news in nutrition. Instead, focus on the basics: a stable and healthy weight, from drinking sufficient water and eating mostly whole and fresh foods which contain adequate vitamins and minerals and a suitable balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat and fiber). A simple guideline: your plate should be 2/3 full with vegetables and whole grains, and colorful. Once you are living the basics, there are many ways of eating you may wish to explore: vegetarianism, calorie restriction, the paleo diet (no grains or dairy), organically grown foods, raw diets, supplements, etc. With a solid basic diet in place you will be in a better position to evaluate these options for their overall sensibleness and their suitability for you personally.
When we decide to live a more balanced life, with a sensible balance of momentary and enduring satisfactions, then we are necessarily moving in the direction of being a SEN Master. SEN, which is a foundation of physical and emotional health, is its own reward. SEN also establishes the foundation for other enduring satisfactions. So I have encouraged you to start (or continue) taking the time to get adequate sleep, to create and follow an exercise plan, and to shop for, prepare and consume wholesome meals. Like other enduring satisfactions, the payoffs for these activities will likely be delayed, not immediate. Like other tasks, keeping records, gathering information from multiple sources, reflecting on your progress and making mid-course corrections, patience, discipline and keeping the end in mind, all have their place. I wish you a more SENsible and satisfying life!
Adapted with permission from an article originally published in the SMART Recovery newsletter.