Building Self-Esteem Through Exercise
Building self-esteem is very important in recovery.
Self-esteem can be a curious beast. It is a pretty nebulous concept. In fact, it’s more of a grouping of elements than a hard, defined entity. However, despite its nebulous existence, it is one of the most important facets of health and wellbeing in modern life.
For the purpose of this article, I’m going to count self-esteem as a combination of a couple of things. Firstly, it applies to adequately high subjective feelings of personal value. In addition, it contains self-worth and value judgements therein. I’m also going to include confidence – not because this is strictly related to self-esteem, but because it is intimately bound up with it.
Building self-esteem the false way - Through addiction
Building self-esteem is vital for healthy and successful living as you tread the path to addiction recovery. A lack of self-esteem has been linked with the onset of drug use and a greater propensity for addiction. This includes both substance and behavioural addictions – things like compulsive behaviours, eating disorders, internet addiction, and so on.
Many people use addictive substances and behaviours as a crutch. Compulsive behaviours like bulimia or anorexia can give the illusion of control, making somebody suffering from them feel grounded and secure. Similarly, alcohol and drugs can help to quell anxiety, making you feel more confident.
However, these effects are all short lived. If you’ve been through this and are in recovery, you no-doubt know this. The temporary feeling of control or confidence is nothing like true self-esteem.
Low self-esteem and recovery
Low self-esteem can also cripple recovery, making relapse much more likely in the same way it does initial problems.
You’re facing a bit of a double whammy if you’re trying to overcome addiction. Not only does self-esteem make addiction more likely, but addiction can ruin your self-esteem. Repeated relapse in recovery can feel like failure. It is unfortunately very common. Low mood and anxiety are also common when under the influence of addictive substances or behaviour, further lowering self-esteem.
Thus, you get trapped in a vicious cycle. The lower your self-esteem, the likelier you are to suffer from addiction and/or relapse; the more you suffer with addiction, the lower your self-esteem; and so on...
However, there is plenty you can do to when building up your self-esteem. There are lots of positive steps you can take.
Physical fitness is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal if you’re looking to build up your self-esteem. We at Recoverlution recognise this and so have dedicated an entire section to fitness within our Wellbeing hub.
Fitness’ role in building self-esteem
There are many reasons that exercise is good for your physical and mental wellbeing. There are plenty that specifically make it quite a profound resource for self-esteem. In fact, recent research has related physical fitness to self-esteem in both direct and indirect ways.
Fitness can give you confidence in your own physicality. This means that you will find yourself becoming more comfortable in your own skin, with improved awareness.
Of course, it might make you appear more aesthetically pleasing to yourself, which will always give you a bit of a boost. However, this is the least of it. There are innumerable benefits. For the sake of brevity, I’ve summed up what I believe are the five most profound benefits that fitness can bring when building your self-esteem, making it a perfect tool for overcoming addiction.
1. Stress reduction and catharsis
Addiction recovery is one of the most stressful things that any of us can do. It will be one of the most fraught, anxiety inducing experiences of your life. Therefore, anything you can do to reduce this stress and let it out somewhere is a massive positive.
This can be fitness. It can help you to beat stress whilst building up your self-esteem.
Fitness can reduce stress in and of itself. Any form of physical activity can relieve stress. It will diminish quantities of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your body. It will also release endorphins that will make you feel better. Fitness can also serve as a ready distraction from whatever might be dragging you down in your daily life.
There is an important cathartic element to hard exercise, too. If you’re feeling any pent up stress and anxiety (and I bet you are), working a heavy punch bag, lifting heavy weights, or going through some sprints can be a perfect way to let that energy out. On the other hand, relaxing exercise styles like tai chi and yoga can be great ways to manage and channel your stress into something far more positive.
Getting rid of this stress will remove a large burden – a burden which can cripple your self-esteem if left unchecked.
2. Boosted mental wellbeing
This all plays into improving your mental health. The stress reduction alone will have profound ramifications. Diminished anxiety levels and less overall stress will make you feel far healthier. It can make you feel mentally free with greater clarity. The endorphins mentioned above will lift your mood, making you feel happier and more energised.
All of this will undo a lot of the depressive elements that can underpin low self worth, thus building self-esteem. It can also fortify you, giving you the emotional power you need as you journey towards improved self-esteem.
3. Improved sense of purpose and accomplishment
You might feel a lack of self-esteem if you are just treading water. Life can feel directionless, unrewarding, and ultimately without purpose. You can feel like you’re not accomplishing much. Whether or not this is true, fitness can help.
Training comes with clear goals to work towards. Meeting those goals, or at least pushing yourself towards them, can and should give you a great sense of accomplishment. You should feel proud of yourself.
By getting into fitness, you will go from drifting through life to living a full physical existence, target driven and fulfilling. There is little better for your self-esteem than a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
4. Improved cognition
Self-esteem begins and ends in the brain. It therefor makes perfect sense to improve your brain’s power, functionality, and thinking abilities. A clear head is vital to owning a clear view of yourself, cognizant of all your merits as well as your flaws.
Exercise can give you this. In layman’s terms, a single session can blow the cobwebs out. It can leave you thinking more clearly, more objectively, which is sorely needed when building your self-esteem. It can help you to form a clear, more accurate view of yourself.
There is more to it than this, however. A molecule called irisin is produced through a chain reaction in the brain during exercise, particularly where endurance plays a role. Irisin is believed to have neuroprotective effects. It may be able to activate genes involved in memory and learning.
Add this to the improved clarity and energy we’ve already discussed, and your brain will be firing on all cylinders. As well as helping you to think more objectively about yourself, you will also have the comfort of knowing that you are cognitively more powerful than before. This should boost your confidence even as it boosts your ability to think.
5. Greater wellbeing
There is a lot to be said for simple improved wellbeing. Those with greater wellbeing will generally have greater self-esteem, and vice versa.
This is especially the case with self-perceived wellbeing – which is to say, arguably the most important element of wellbeing.
Exercise provides some much-needed short term benefits, here. It can improve your mood and energy levels, of course. It has also been shown to push your mind towards adopting more positive thoughts and thought patterns. This will include the way in which you see yourself – you will likely view yourself more positively under the short-term effects of physical activity.
There are longer term benefits to be gained, too. Improved confidence in your abilities and physique will combine with the satisfaction and pride of pushing yourself towards new goals. You should feel better about yourself simply because there is more to feel good about. You will achieved a great thing and deserve a solid and firm pat on the back.
Exercise for building self-esteem
There is no one form of exercise that beats any other when it comes to self-esteem. All forms of physical activity are equal and valid in building you up. Duration and intensity are the main variables we want to watch out for. You should be aiming for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week.
This can be a half hour, hard daily walk or jog five days per week. It can be three or four intense circuit or weightlifting sessions. It can be a couple of one- to two- hour-long martial arts classes. Swimming every morning is a great way to begin your day. Nightly yoga classes will be perfect and will help you sleep better.
Try as wide a range of physical activities as you are able. Make the most of any and all local resources. Give every class at your local gym or leisure centre a go. Take a taster session with a personal trainer. Try out local martial arts classes or get in touch with a yoga studio.
What you do doesn’t matter too much. It just has to be something that will hold your interest and keep you inspired. It needs to be something you can regularly access and that brings you genuine pleasure.
Try it out. Give yourself 150 minutes per week. Go for more – 300 minutes marks the upper range of what we’re looking for, which means an hour or so most days. Just get yourself moving, make some goals, smash them, then carry on. Stop every so often to take stock and congratulate yourself.
I can almost guarantee that you’ll feel better about yourself. Your self-esteem will leap upwards even as you tread the path to addiction recovery.
Physical activity and self-esteem: testing direct and indirect relationships associated with psychological and physical mechanisms https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5068479/