The benefits of exercise on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health have been lauded for what seems like decades now. Whether reading peer-reviewed journals or scrolling through pictures on Facebook depicting the new CrossFit obsession, one thing becomes apparent, exercise has its benefits.
But what is the connection between exercise and addiction and recovery? After all, what does going on a brisk walk, lifting weights, or playing a pick-up game of basketball have anything to do with getting and staying clean and sober? More than you might think.
As the body is adjusting and recalibrating itself to a life without alcohol or drugs, it is undergoing numerous changes. These changes while positive in the long term may seem hellish and unbearable in the interim.
Increased feelings of stress, reduced energy, poor sleep, and depressed or anxious mood may follow individuals into recovery even after the detoxification period has ended. This is where exercise becomes beneficial. Individuals in recovery who engage in regular physical exercise can benefit from a reduction in stress, better sleep, increased energy, and improved mood and more.
7 Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
- Stress Reduction: When individuals cross the line into alcohol or drug dependence, often the hoped-for release of stress once achieved by having a glass of wine or beer after work is but a distant memory. Ever increasing amounts of alcohol or drugs are consumed in a chase to alleviate stress. However, the relief from stress becomes more allusive and eventually disappears entirely. Often, the alcohol or drug use becomes a direct cause of stress. So what happens when an individual makes the decision to receive drug or alcohol treatment, does the aforementioned stress disappear, too?If only it were that simple.Fortunately, stress reduction can be achieved through almost any physical activity that raises the heart rate. Stress is something that recovering individuals will have to learn to navigate successfully if they hope to stay clean and sober. Regular exercise has been proven to alleviate stress both in the short and long terms. During exercise, chemicals are released in the brain serving to combat stress. Therefore, developing a healthy routine that can be utilized when stress related to life, work, or family show up will go a long way to helping recovering individuals return to a place of balance.
- Better Sleep: Issues related to problematic sleep are common, especially in early recovery. Regardless of the drug of choice, whether it be a stimulant such as cocaine or a depressant such as alcohol, the cessation of such substances (and numerous others) can greatly affect sleep. Difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, or wanting to sleep in the middle of the day may result leaving recovering individuals feeling sluggish and tired. While over the counter, non-habit forming products may be of assistance, an even more natural remedy can be utilized. Regular exercise serves to improve sleep both in the amount of hours slept, quality of sleep and can serve to counter the impulse to nap in the middle of the day. Consequently, as sleep improves so does wakefulness. Individuals reporting sound sleep also report feeling more alert and able to tackle the demands of life. One way exercise serves to improve sleep is by altering the body’s temperature. Body temperature is highest during and following periods of exercise and lowest during times of sleep. Hours after exercise, the body begins to cool at a faster than normal rate. Consequently, this accelerated cooling process allows a state of sleep to be reached more easily. Researchers warn that noticeable improvements in sleep, as it relates to exercise may take weeks or occasionally months to become pronounced. Therefore, do not become discouraged. Remember, the body is adjusting to life without alcohol or drugs in every way imaginable and sleep patterns are not immune.
- Increased Energy: There is a saying in many recovery circles that says, “You have to give it away to keep it”. Expending energy in the form of exercise is no different. Therefore, to get energy one must give it. During exercise, blood is pushed more aggressively through the heart and oxygen levels within the body increase. With regular exercise, the boost in oxygen levels serves to improve overall energy. Furthermore, as the body becomes more cardiovascular and physically fit, activities of daily living become easier to perform. Tasks are completed more efficiently and with less energy. These are precisely the reasons many individuals choose to exercise early in the morning. The energy expended early in the morning returns as fuel for the remainder of the day. Individuals in early recovery may have forgotten how demanding life can be without the use of alcohol or drugs. Therefore, incorporating an exercise routine early in the recovery process can go a long way to helping newly clean and sober individuals as they begin to re-manage the demands of daily life.
- Improved Mood: Mood changes can occur frequently during the detoxification process from alcohol or drugs. Even following detoxification, mood changes can fluctuate, especially in early recovery. One minute, the recovering individual feels on top of the world and the next minute, that same individual may feel disheartened and lost. Again, the body is adjusting to life without alcohol or drugs and these changes in feelings are normal. How can exercise serve to improve the mood of someone in recovery? Endorphins are one of the chemicals released by the body during exercise. Research shows that endorphins produce positive feelings such as happiness and euphoria. Happiness and euphoria were those same hoped for feelings that initiated and perpetuated continued drug or alcohol use. Like with stress reduction, research shows that regular exercise can improve mood both in the short and long terms.Exercise need not be long to achieve an improvement in mood. According to the Mayo Clinic, 30 minutes of exercise, per day is enough to see changes. A benefit of receiving professional alcohol or drug treatment is the ability to be guided down the sometimes uncertain and seemingly scary path of dealing with stress, fluctuating sleep patterns, decreases in energy, and changing moods by qualified medical professionals. Some medical professionals are eager to diagnose newly recovering individuals with depression or bipolar disorder. In their defense, prolonged drug or alcohol use can mimic behavior and symptoms similar to many diagnosable mental health conditions.However, fluctuations in affect and mood are normal early in recovery. As such, it is important to utilize professionals with addiction specific experience who realize a pronounced period of substance abstinence is needed before determining if any of these labels are even remotely applicable. Furthermore, choosing a treatment center that promotes exercise as a healthy coping skill will serve as a building block for continued recovery, long after treatment ends.
- Protects Against Disease: According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, exercise helps protect against many ailments, including:
- Heart disease
- Some cancers
However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than half of Americans get the recommended amount of physical activity. An increasing body of research is demonstrating that exercise helps protect the body against the effects of drugs, decreases cravings, and boosts recovery rates. So what’s the evidence?
- Protects the Brain From Drugs: Long-term alcohol abuse gradually damages the white matter in the brain – the tracts of connections that link brain cells to one another.One study performed by the University of Colorado Boulder found that regular aerobic exercise, like running or cycling, helps protect the brain against this damage. Another study, from the University of Maine, found that mice were less likely to experience seizures while going through alcohol withdrawal if they chose to exercise regularly. Alcohol isn’t the only drug that exercise protects against. A study published in Synapse showed that exercise could partially protect rats against the neurotoxic effects of repeated methamphetamine binging. Methamphetamine use in high doses normally causes the brain’s nerve cells to lose dopamine transporters, which are involved in the brain’s ability to process motivation, attention, and reward. When the rats in the study had access to a running wheel, this damage was greatly reduced. This may be because exercise causes the body to create a compound called BDNF, which causes the growth of nerve cells and their connections.
- Reduces Drug-Seeking Behavior: Exercise can also help reduce the drive to smoke and often reduces drug-seeking behavior. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and exercise can help people quit smoking. When combined with nicotine replacement, exercise is more effective at helping smokers avoid weight gain than nicotine replacement alone. Since nicotine is an appetite suppressant, many people who try to quit smoking find that they gain weight when they stop, which drives them to resume smoking again. One study from Brown University published in Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who engaged in vigorous exercise three times a week for 12 weeks were twice as likely to succeed in quitting smoking as women who did not. Another study published in Psychopharmacology found that smokers who exercised intensely for 10 minutes felt their cravings to smoke diminished for a short time. Exercise can also help reduce cravings to smoke marijuana as well. The NIDA reports that teens who get regular exercise are not just less likely to smoke cigarettes, but are also less likely to abuse marijuana than their less-active peers. This is supported by a PLoS One study that found that exercise reduced marijuana usage and cravings in cannabis-dependent adults. Several studies have examined the effects of exercise on rats’ willingness to self-administer drugs.
One study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that rats who exercised were willing to push a lever fewer times to receive a dose of cocaine. In a follow-up study published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, the same researcher found that while exercise after exposure to cocaine reduced rats’ self-administration of the drug, exercise that occurred only before drug exposure had no effect on drug use. Another study in Biological Psychiatry may have shed light on why: access to running wheels helped partially reverse some of the addictive adaptations to the dopamine system that prolonged cocaine use causes in the brain. These effects aren’t limited to cocaine either. Rats with the freedom to exercise on running wheels also self-administered smaller amounts of heroin than sedentary rats in one study in Pharmacological Reports. Two other studies presented at the Experimental Biology 2014 conference found that access to running wheels in the day prior to drug exposure caused rats to self-administer lower amounts of methamphetamine and Ecstasy (MDMA).
Although it’s not possible for ethical reasons to have humans self-administer dangerous drugs for the sake of a lab test, a study in Behavior Modification has looked at the drinking patterns of people in response to an exercise-based intervention for alcohol abuse. Some 60 to 90 percent of people who try to quit using alcohol relapse within the first year, often due to the difficulties maintaining the necessary lifestyle changes. In a guided program, participants gradually increased levels of moderate exercise over 12 weeks.
They met together as a group to receive additional coaching on how to increase fitness in their daily lives, offering peer support. Finally, the participants in the study received $5 for each group and exercise session they attended, giving them an incentive to return. As a result of the 12-week intervention, the participants’ average number of drinks per day dropped from 13 to two, with effects lasting for at least three months.
Exercise can be a very effective tool during the recovery process and for life. Whether it’s yoga, team sports, running or aerobics, keep moving to increase the chances of continued recovery and a healthy life.