Ask the Expert: Nell Hurley of Hurley Health

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Nell Hurley of Hurley Health on the benefits of fitness and nutrition in recovery.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became involved with fitness and life coaching.

Fitness has always been part of my recovery process. Maintaining sobriety was difficult for me when I first started down the road of recovery, even though I was going to meetings, and I liked the people I met there. It wasn’t until I paired my involvement in a recovery program with running that I was able to maintain my sobriety for weeks, which soon became months, which then became years.

Looking back, running seemed to calm my anxiety and it helped me start to feel good about myself. It boosted my self-esteem and made me feel like if I could run a marathon then maybe I could stay sober too. In the beginning I didn’t feel like I was someone who could do either—run a marathon or stay sober—but the more I did of one, the more success I had with the other. Running and recovery have always been intertwined for me. I just celebrated my 25th year of recovery and I still run regularly.

Running eventually led to an interest in other fitness modalities like yoga and strength training. Over the past 15 years I’ve become trained and certified as yoga instructor, CrossFit instructor, and personal trainer.

Despite all my training and certifications, fitness was never a full-time job for me. I had been working in the addiction recovery field since 2010 where I helped create and deliver trainings for recovery coaches. I worked at Minnesota Recovery Connection, Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, and The Phoenix and in 2020, just before the pandemic hit, I quit my full-time job at The Phoenix to start Hurley Health where I combine fitness with recovery and life coaching.

Q: How do physical fitness and nutrition support recovery?

There’s lots of evidence that physical fitness and healthy nutrition support recovery, but most recovery programs don’t incorporate fitness or nutrition into the recovery process. One of the biggest ways that exercise supports recovery is by reducing anxiety and stress, which can diminish cravings for substances. Exercise, when done with a group, can increase positive social connections, another indicator of strong recovery. But even exercise done alone can release endorphins, or feel-good chemicals in the brain that can reduce pain, boost mood, and promote healing in the brain through new nerve cell growth. Exercise can also support recovery by adding structure to a person’s day and by providing a new way to use one’s time. One of the most important things that exercise did for me when I was new in recovery was that it increased my confidence, self-esteem, and sense of self-worth, which translated to all areas of my life.

Nutrition also plays a major role in addiction recovery. Depending on the severity of a person’s substance use disorder, they might be facing malnutrition or other co-occurring disorders like diabetes. Proper nutrition can help the body and brain heal in early and ongoing recovery and provides benefits like mental clarity, increased energy, healthy sleep, and improved digestion, all of which have a positive impact on recovery.

Q: Are New Year’s resolutions effective? 

One of the biggest ways that exercise supports recovery is by reducing anxiety and stress, which can diminish cravings for substances.New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap for being ineffective. We’re all aware that gyms are packed in January and empty by March because most of the time New Year’s resolutions don’t stick. But researcher Katie Milkman did an important study in 2014 on what she calls the “fresh start” effect. The “fresh start” study reveals that behavioral change that is linked to what Milkman calls “temporal landmarks” like New Year’s Day, the beginning of the week, a person’s birthday, or the start of a new semester, can enable people to be more effective at setting and achieving goals. So, while New Year’s resolutions don’t always stick, they are more likely to stick than resolutions that are made at insignificant times.

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Another reason why New Year’s resolutions don’t stick is because they so often involve changes to a person’s diet and exercise routines, which are two of the hardest areas to make lasting change. Rather than telling yourself that starting January 1 you’re going to eat healthy, lose weight, and make time for the gym, put some proven behavioral change strategies into place like getting an accountability partner, hiring a coach, habit stacking, or removing environmental cues like the presence of alcohol or junk foods that can hinder your success.

Q: There is a lot of information about nutrition, diets, exercise, fitness routines, and healthy living. If someone is curious about exploring new ways to support their overall wellness, where do you encourage someone to start?

The amount of information out there about nutrition, diets, exercise, fitness routines, and healthy living can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know where to even start and who to trust. My advice is to keep it simple and to stay away from promises like “lose 10 pounds in a month” or “develop a six-pack by doing this cleanse.” Start by making small changes rather than trying to overhaul your whole life overnight. For instance, you can start by simply incorporating some form of movement into your day. Walking is a great place to start. If you have access to a gym, you can join fitness classes and ask the staff how to use the equipment. If you are shy about being in the gym, hire a personal trainer who can help you get started. The same goes for nutrition: Start with small changes. If you drink soda, commit to replacing your soda with water three times per week and build from there. Or add a salad to your one of your meals each day and work your way up to having some veggies and leafy greens at every lunch and dinner.

Q: Describe the concept of someone being “sober curious” and being in the “Gray Area Drinking.” How is this different than people who have a substance use disorder?

Gray Area Drinkers are people who fall between the extremes of every-now-and-again drinkers and “alcoholics.” Millions of people fall into this category. Gray Area Drinkers aren’t clinically appropriate for detox of treatment or AA, but they drink in a way that poses risks to their health. Gray Area Drinkers are often aware that they are drinking more than they would like to or more than is healthy, but they aren’t interested in giving up alcohol altogether  or forever and they certainly aren’t interested in labeling themselves as an alcoholic. Gray Area Drinkers are sometimes sober curious, meaning they question or become curious about their drinking rather than mindlessly giving in to every impulse or invitation to drink.

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When I quit drinking 25 years ago, things were much more black and white: You were either an alcoholic or you weren’t. Back then, very few people turned down alcohol for a sober lifestyle (or even a sober night) because they preferred the way the felt and functioned without it. Nowadays, there’s more acceptance around exploring sobriety by people who aren’t alcoholic. It’s become okay to say, “No thanks, I’m not drinking tonight” or “No thanks, I don’t drink” without people thinking you just got out of rehab or are having big problems with alcohol.

There are some great podcasts and websites about the sober curious movement and Gray Area Drinking. A Google search for “Ruby Warrington,” who coined the term “Sober Curious,” can bring you down that rabbit hole.

Q: What are some tips for someone who is just starting out on their fitness journey? (regardless of mobility or fitness level)  

Be kind to yourself if you are just starting out on your fitness journey. It can be scary and feel quite uncomfortable to start to exercise when you’ve been sedentary for a while. But fitness is just like recovery: you just simply start where you are. Remember that we don’t begin anything having already mastered it. Just like learning French or how to play the piano, exercising may feel awkward and hard in the beginning. But also like speaking a different language or playing music, fitness can be really fun once you get a little better at it. Just be patient with yourself. Get a coach or join a club so you don’t have to figure it out on your own. Hurley Health offers on-on-one personal training for all levels and Kate Moeller from Fully Vested offers a free fitness class for people in recovery on Sundays at 9 am at FitHaus in Long Lake.

Q: What are some additional resources for people who would like to improve their overall health? 

Hurley Health: Helping people overcome substance use challenges through fitness, nutrition, and coaching.

The Phoenix: A sober, active community that offers free in-person and online fitness classes.

Yoga with Adrienne: Free yoga videos on You Tube.

The Cook’s Cure: Marianne is a culinary nutrition educator, recipe developer, forager/gardener and chef with over twenty-five years of experience.


Nell Hurley has been in recovery from addiction since December 27, 1997. As a trained life coach, recovery coach, and certified personal trainer, Nell combines fitness and life coaching with other recovery support strategies to help people overcome substance use challenges. Learn more at Hurley Health.

If you have a question for the experts, or you are an expert interested in being featured, please email phoenix@thephoenixspirit.com. Experts have not been compensated for their advice. 

Last Updated on January 9, 2023

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