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Does Exercise Help Addiction Recovery?

Because addiction is a chronic illness that changes the structure of the brain and involves compulsive behaviors, it is important for people struggling with this condition to find ways to stay away from drugs or alcohol. The foundation of any approach to addiction treatment starts with a detox, then moves into therapy at a rehabilitation program, and finishes with an aftercare plan. 

However, the methods in each of these steps must be highly individual and flexible because people need access to different approaches to safely detoxing from drugs, forms of social support and therapy, and even complementary treatments that bolster the effectiveness of treatments.

Medical researchers have started to analyze how complementary treatments can support people while they go through addiction treatment. Exercise is becoming increasingly popular as part of addiction treatment during rehabilitation and aftercare. Working out builds physical strength, of course, but it can also regulate brain chemistry, provide a distraction from cravings, improve sleep quality, and aid digestion. 

The Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

Globally, about 9% of early deaths have been attributed to not enough exercise. Other studies show that physical activity and substance abuse rates are inversely related. People who exercise are less likely to drink too much or abuse drugs, while people who abuse intoxicating substances are less likely to exercise enough. With this inverse relationship, it makes sense to add some forms of exercise to substance abuse treatment because people who become involved in these programs are less likely to relapse back into substance abuse.

A small study in humans investigated an exercise program offered to 38 men and women who misused various substances, including opioids, cannabis, amphetamines, and cocaine. Participants agreed to take part in group exercise three times a week for two to six months. Twenty people completed the intervention. When reassessed a year later, five reported abstinence and 10 reported they had decreased their substance use.

General benefits from exercise include:

  • Exercise will help heal your body and your brain: Research clearly shows that exercise helps your body, whether you’re in recovery or not. Improved long term fitness helps with cardio-vascular health and diabetes, lowers the risk of some types of cancers, stimulates the immune system, and can even help alleviate depression symptoms. Further research shows that exercise can increase the amount of new nerve connections in the brain, which will help your brain heal from the harm your drug of choice has been causing.
  • Exercise can help provide structure to your days: This can take several forms including features like a set workout plan or signing up for classes like yoga or spinning at the local gym.
  • Creating and maintaining a regular exercise routine will stimulate the brain’s reward system on a regular basis: This part of the brain reacts to dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. When these neurotransmitters are present or binding to receptor cells, this indicates to the reward system that something positive has happened.

Types of Exercise That Reduced Withdrawal Symptoms and Relapse Risk

A 2011 study found that any amount of exercise, at all stages of the drug abuse recovery process, for nearly every form of substance abuse, helps manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse. While a physician may offer specific guidance about safe exercise routines— it is mostly up to the individual in treatment to get involved in exercise and discover which forms work best for them.

Here are some exercise approaches studied and found to improve mental health, behavioral health, and reduce the risk of relapse.

Aerobic exercise: Walking, especially at a brisk pace, and running are both associated with benefits like heart health, lung health, better sleep quality, reduced stress, and improved mood. A doctor can help with the decision to start with light walking for 30 minutes a day, and if it is safe to train for jogging or running.

Weight lifting: Improving muscle tone through lifting weights or going through other forms of strength training was found to reduce depression symptoms in 45 stroke survivors who participated in a program for 10 weeks. Reducing depression can improve mood in people who abuse drugs or alcohol, and that can reduce the risk of relapse.

Yoga, tai chi, and similar exercises: Yoga is being studied as a complementary treatment in mental health and substance abuse programs, because the combination of stretching, strengthening, and meditation is associated with greatly improved mood, the ability to manage stress, reduce negative thoughts, and improve physical health. Tai chi offers similar benefits, as do low-impact martial arts like aikido. Ideally, several options should be available, as someone who enjoys tai chi may not enjoy yoga, and they should customize their recovery to suit their needs.

Outdoor activities: Hiking, gardening, and other ways of “playing” outdoors, offer the benefits of exercise, and improve mood by exposing one to sunlight. It is important to protect against skin damage from the sun with sunscreen and appropriate clothing, but sunlight has been found to improve mood by regulating serotonin levels and boosting natural vitamin D production in the body.

Where You Can Turn for Addiction Treatment

Admitting that you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol is complex, but it’s the first essential step towards achieving long-term recovery. Going to a rehab, like Archstone Behavioral Health, with a compassionate staff that will help you with every step along the way can be the key to staying sober.

We’re committed to helping our patients in any way possible, we have compiled a list below blog posts that may be beneficial to you or a loved one requiring addiction treatment: 

Archstone focuses on the tradition of 12-step treatment, it’s a tradition that has worked for millions of people searching for recovery, and it can help you or a loved one currently struggling with addiction too. 

We also offer a full continuum of care, so you don’t need to bounce between treatment centers, and you’ll always work with the same staff.

Call Archstone Behavioral Health now at: 561-475-4237 to get help for you or a loved one today.