What If Exercise Makes You Feel Worse Instead of Better?

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Exercise is an important part of most recovery programs, and for good reason. Mountains of evidence show that exercise is good for your physical and mental health. Research suggests that exercise can reduce anxiety and stress-related illness, for example, by modulating the way the brain responds to stress. Additional research demonstrates the broad array of cognitive benefits associated with exercise. Among these benefits is the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for transferring short-term memory into long-term memory. Furthermore, exercise results in an increase in prefrontal cortex brain volume, supporting executive functions such as attention, willpower, and emotional regulation. According to emerging evidence, exercise might even play a more direct role in preventing relapse on opioids, cocaine, and other substances. 

Our bodies are made to move and people typically feel better as they become more active. However, exercise makes some people feel worse, especially in the beginning. If you’ve recently started exercising and you’re having a hard time sticking to your routine, here are some things to try before giving up. 

Give It Time

Keep in mind is that change is always hard. Making the effort to exercise might feel uncomfortable and even exhausting at first, especially if you’ve been relatively sedentary for a long time. Feelings of overwhelm and defeat may be compounded by trying to change several major habits at once. Typically, it’s best to try and change or create a single habit at a time. When you’re recovering from addiction, however, that might not always be possible. Be patient with yourself and try to stick with it. Give yourself at least two months of consistent practice, as it tends to take time for a new habit to begin feeling like a normal part of your day. By then, you may find yourself actually looking forward to exercising. At the very least, you should definitely notice the effect it has on your mental, emotional and physical health.

Improve Your Self-Care

Another mistake people often make when they start exercising is that they don’t realize how it will change their baseline needs for food and rest. Since many people exercise to lose weight, it’s not a big deal if they eat the same amount of calories at first. As they get closer to their target weight, however, they may begin feeling tired because they’re not eating enough to sustain their level of activity. If you find yourself feeling lethargic, fatigued, or exhausted several hours after exercise, make sure you’re eating enough. Count your calories, if necessary. Apps like MyFitnessPal make this relatively easy. Make sure you’re eating high-quality whole foods. Try keeping track of what you’re consuming and observe how it affects your exercise.

Furthermore, people often underestimate how much rest they will need once they start exercising. Your body needs time to rebuild and recover, which mostly happens while you sleep. You may need as much as an extra hour of sleep per night to make up for vigorous exercise during the day. Fortunately, exercise also improves the quality of your sleep. Listen to your body and commit to paying attention to the signals it is sending you. 

Back off the Intensity

Be conscious of trying to do too much too soon. Overexertion is common among beginners and in populations who used to be athletes but fell out of shape. The latter might actually suffer from this worse due to expectations that they should be able to pick up where they left off, despite years of inactivity. Beginners, on the other hand, tend to set their baseline according to what they’ve seen on TV or at the gym without taking skill level into consideration. Everyone is different and can handle different activity intensity. There’s no shame in starting off slow. 

Furthermore, there’s a huge difference between a ‘once a week’ workout and a ‘once a day’ workout. For example, you might feel great after going out and running a mile. However, after trying to run a mile every day, chances are you might be wondering why you feel so exhausted by the end of the week. When it comes to building a fitness baseline that will promote sustainable energy and general wellbeing, consistency beats intensity. If you’re feeling exhausted, irritable, or depressed, try backing off a bit. Do easier workouts every day and cut higher intensity workouts down to once or twice a week. Notice how you feel.

Try Something Different

We’re not all made for the same kinds of activity. Some people love running while others love lifting weights. Others still, find the whole idea of “exercise” intolerable and seek more experiential ways of getting active, like playing basketball with friends, hiking, or gardening. There’s an old saying that the best exercise is the exercise you’ll actually do. If running on the treadmill for half an hour makes you feel awful, you’re not alone. Try lifting weights or getting out of the gym altogether. Most research on exercise and mental health has focused on aerobic activity, suggesting that it might be the most effective exercise for improving your mental health. While all kinds of aerobic activities promote these improvements, those involving a social aspect seem to demonstrate additional benefits. Get a group of friends together and get moving. Consider trying something new like rock climbing or biking. Switch it up and keep it fun. Do what works best for you.

Looking for Support?

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Hired Power is here to help. Our dynamic team of experienced recovery professionals is committed to giving you the guidance you need as you embark on your recovery journey. We offer many services and we’re dedicated to helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional options to meet your individual needs. If you are ready to make a change and live a life free from addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, call us today at 714-559-3919.