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Exercise in recovery (and in quarantine)

By: Michele King


By now, many of us have been in quarantine for nearly four months, and we are still trying to grapple with the accompanying loneliness, boredom, and general anxiety around the virus. Exacerbating this anxiety is the fear of losing financial support, having loved ones affected, and seeing conflicting or confusing information online. For those struggling with active addiction or in any stage of recovery, these challenges are distinctly difficult and may be triggers to relapse.

Physical activity is one way to cope with these feelings and provide a healthy, immediate, and reliable outlet for some of the stress you might be feeling. Here are some ways that exercise is particularly beneficial for people in recovery:

  1. Exercise can provide structure and routine. In recovery, especially the early stages, many people struggle with filling the time they used to spend with their addiction or the rituals related to it, like meeting friends at a bar or even going to buy cigarettes. Boredom, which has been compounded by quarantine, is often a threat to sobriety. Incorporating some kind of physical exercise—whether it’s a walk outside, an online yoga class, or even 15 minutes of stretching—can be a great way to fill that time and keep boredom at bay.

  2. Exercise improves sleep. The 2018 Scientific Report from the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion found strong evidence that “moderate-to-vigorous physical activity improves the quality of sleep.” It can also “increase the time in deep sleep and reduce daytime sleepiness.” The healing and recharging that occurs during sleep may be particularly critical for individuals in recovery, as substance use can aggravate sleep difficulties, which in turn presents a risk for relapse. Reported rates of sleep problems in people with alcohol use disorder, for example, range from 25 to 72 percent. Moderate aerobic exercise helps with a natural transition to sleep and increases the amount of slow wave deep sleep, which is when the body and brain have a chance to rejuvenate.​

  3. It can improve your mood. Michael Otto, Ph.D., Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University, says “the link between exercise and mood is pretty strong […] usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.” Exercise and physical activity provide a distraction from negative thoughts, and some researchers theorize that this mental “time out” plays an important role in improving our emotional state. For individuals in recovery, particularly the early stages, mood swings are very common. Stress, anxiety, and irritability may all be at the fore, and it can feel like riding an emotional rollercoaster. The endorphins released through exercise can interrupt those negative thoughts and increase feelings of happiness and well-being.​

  4. It’s a confidence boost. A 2016 study in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment found that physical activity is directly related to self-esteem, even noting that a change in fitness level might not be necessary in order to reap this benefit; we may have increased confidence in our health and physical abilities “simply because there is a feeling that the body is improving through exercise.” Additionally, working towards goals, even small ones, is a powerful way to increase confidence daily. During addiction and recovery, self-esteem often takes a hit while feelings of inadequacy and shame are magnified. Believing that you are lovable and worthy is not an overnight or one-step process, but exercise is one means of changing your perception, finding your power, and beginning to trust yourself again.

  5. It’s a healthy coping mechanism. In this period of unrelenting stress, we may all need an additional outlet. Exercise is a vital tool in maintaining mental fitness and well-being. It has been shown to decrease overall tension and anxiety, in addition to improving concentration and reducing fatigue. Most of us are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and frustration amid coronavirus concerns; for someone in recovery, physical activity is a way to channel that additional energy in a healthy and constructive way.

Are you looking for some quarantine-friendly exercise ideas? Here are a few ways to be active during the Covid-19 restrictions, with links to exercise-specific guidance and routines:

Go for a walk or run. Getting outside for exercise is a great way to connect with your body, mind, and nature, whether it’s a hike in the mountains or a tree-lined sidewalk. Trying switching up your route to see different places. If you want to try running, the Couch to 5K program is a great place to start. Are you interested in podcasts? Check out our recovery-focused podcast recommendations and listen while you move! 

  • Note: During Covid-19 it’s important to take necessary health precautions, including social distancing, wearing a face mask, and washing your hands. Avoid busy areas and try to go during less-crowded times, like the beginning or end of the day.

Try bodyweight exercises. Physical activity doesn’t require equipment—or even leaving your living room. Simple bodyweight training, which uses your own body instead of machines for resistance, is a great way to build strength and flexibility. Check out these lists for ideas plus instructions on how to do them safely and effectively.

Explore yoga, Pilates, or a simple stretching routine. These low-impact exercises are a terrific way to loosen tight muscles and increase balance and stability. Plus, they take up very little space and require little to no equipment. Even committing to ten minutes of stretching per day is a great first step in building routine and finding stress relief. 

Use the internet, apps, or online streaming services. No matter what your fitness level or workout preference is, there is a huge variety of free or low-cost at-home workout routines available online. Here are a few recommendations!

Have a dance party! Dancing is a fun, free, and easy way to get your heartrate up and feel that extra confidence boost. This is also a great option if you have kids—make a playlist, push the furniture back, and go wild!  

Remember, the best exercise is the one you're most likely to stick with and enjoy. Try a few on for size and have fun!

To find additional support and recovery resources, check out our resources page here. If you are in recovery, you can become a member of the International Quit & Recovery Registry by registering here, where you can take our monthly assessments, earn rewards, and get support from other Recovery Heroes. We would love to have you as part of our community.


For questions or comments, contact us at! We look forward to hearing from you.



  1. Twark, C. (2018). “Can exercise help conquer addiction?” Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from

  2. “Physical Activity Reduces Stress.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Retrieved from

  3. Ren. (2020). “The Importance of Sleep in Addiction Recovery.” Narconon International. Retrieved from

  4. “Treating Sleep Problems of People in Recovery from Substance Use Disorders.” (2014). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from

  5. “Exercising for Better Sleep.” (n.d.) Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from

  6. Weir, K. (2011). “The exercise effect.” American Psychological Association. Retrieved from

  7. Mikkelsen, K., Stojanovska, L., Polenakovic, M., Bosevski, M., & Apostolopoulos, V. (2017). Exercise and mental health. Maturitas, 106, 48-56.

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