Exercise is a powerful tool that can be used to support recovery from substance addiction. Substances of abuse such as alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and opiates, to name a few, take a serious toll on our physical and mental health. Recovery should be supported by regular exercise, so that the body is an optimal position for the whole person to heal. 

Treatment for substance abuse typically involves a combination of cognitive-based psychotherapies and medications for detox and symptom management during withdrawal. While these approaches have been found to be effective, their benefits are strongly supported when combined with regular exercise.

It is common knowledge that exercise improves our physical health, but it also makes a significant positive impact to our mental and emotional well-being, according to research.. Substance abuse often leads to difficult and challenging symptoms such as stress, anxiety and depression. It has been shown that exercise has been proven to reduce these symptoms, making it an important addition to any addiction treatment.

After entering recovery, the brain and body must adjust to life without drugs. Both have become accustomed to the chemical ingredients of the culprit substance and need time to return to normal functioning without substances. Though these adjustments are necessary and lead to good health in the long term, going through these changes in the present can be extremely difficult and challenging.

The recovery process can involve heightened feelings of stress, fatigue, difficulty with sleep, anxiety, depression, and irritability. It is in the face of these difficulties that the benefits of exercise can be most noticed. 

Those in recovery who engage in regular physical exercise can reap its many benefits, listed by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as:

  • Stress reduction
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased energy
  • Improved mood
  • Improved focus and motivation
  • Improved behavioral health

Exercise for Stress Reduction

Any physical activity that increases the heart rate can promote a reduction in stress. Running, swimming, yoga, and weight lifting are all examples of exercises that raise the heart rate and promote post-exercise relaxation. 

Stress is one of the leading causes of relapse. Those in recovery must learn healthy ways of dealing with stress to give themselves the best chance at living a life free from substances.

Stress can be alleviated in the short and long-term with regular exercise. Exercise reduces stress-related chemicals such adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates the production of endorphins – brain chemicals that act as natural painkillers and improve mood. Thus, a regular exercise routine can help those in recovery more effectively manage feelings of stress, however it presents itself (work, family, cravings, other life events.)

How does Exercise Improve Sleep?

Sleep issues often cause problems for those in recovery. Regardless of the drug that has been abused, cessation of use can disrupt sleep cycles and negatively impact mood, energy, cognition, and motivation. Over-the-counter medication can be used to assist sleep, but a more natural and effective approach is available – regular exercise. Exercise is an effective sleep aid, as it improves both the length and quality of sleep. Improved sleep also plays a role in improved wakefulness during the day. Those in recovery should be informed that the benefits of improved sleep following exercise may take weeks or months to notice.

Exercise for Increased Energy

Exercise, aerobic exercise in particular, strengthens blood flow and increases oxygen levels within the body. With increased oxygen comes increased energy. As a person continues to engage in an exercise routine, they experience better cardiovascular fitness, making it easier to carry out daily tasks and to continue exercising. As those in recovery must adjust to life without drugs, exercise can improve their ability to function and effectively meet life’s daily demands. 

Mood Improvements and Stabilization with Exercise 

During the detox and withdrawal process moods can fluctuate drastically. In one moment, a person may feel motivated and hopeful for the future, and the next be overwhelmed with despair and a feeling of being completely lost. The body goes through a lot when detoxing from prolonged substance use, so it is only natural that a person will experience a rollercoaster of feelings and emotions during this time. Exercise can serve to improve and stabilize one’s mood because it helps to stimulate endorphin production,

Endorphins are responsible for feelings of happiness and even euphoria, which is why runner’s achieve such elevated moods after running. These feelings are often chased by substance users and can seem like a distant memory when substances are abstained from. 

Exercise for Disease Prevention

Prolonged substance abuse weakens the immune system, as reported by Friedman et al. in FEMS Immunology & Medical Microbiology , meaning that the body is left in a vulnerable position in the face of other disease and illness. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, exercise can help individuals prevent:

  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Some cancers
  • Depression

Improved Brain Health

Brain health is significantly damaged by substance abuse. Neurotransmitters can be fried, oxygen dangerously reduced, and brain tissues worn down by intake of harmful substances. Cognition and executive function is also diminished by misuse of substances.

Exercise for Behavioral Health

Drug-seeking behavior can be reduced by regular exercise. Exercise increases the appetite, driving those in recovery to eat instead of suppressing their appetite with substances. Cravings and urges to use can be countered and replaced with motivation to engage in more productive behaviors like running, swimming, yoga, and weight-lifting.

Exercise for Improved Mental Health

Those in recovery are subject to poor mental health, which has been deteriorated by prolonged misuse of substances. Exercise can make a positive impact on a recovering individual’s mental health by reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, and low mood, and by improving cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to boost self-esteem and reduce the tendency towards social withdrawal.

Types of Exercise for Successful Recovery

Any exercise that increases the heart rate and improves blood circulation is going to be beneficial for those in recovery. Beginning an exercise routine can seem daunting, especially as addiction can make a person unmotivated to engage in exercise. Having not engaged in regular exercise for a prolonged period of time, getting into a healthy routine can be difficult at first. However, exercise itself activates the brain’s reward system in a similar way to substance use, so it becomes easier overtime to engage consistently. Common exercises encouraged for those in recovery include:

  • Walking
  • Running
  • Weight-lifting
  • Yoga and Pilates
  • Dancing

Team sports, such as football, basketball,  and baseball, have also been found to be beneficial for those in recovery. The sense of belonging and camaraderie associated with team sports can alleviate feelings of loneliness that are characteristic with addiction and recovery.

In Conclusion

Exercise is a powerful tool for supporting the recovery process. Physical activity improves mood, reduces cravings, increases energy, and reduces symptoms associated with withdrawal, such as depression, anxiety, and stress. Any treatment approach involving therapy and medication should be combined with regular exercise to promote healing and give those in recovery the best chance at leading a full, healthy life.