How Exercise Can Help Addiction Recovery

Should you exercise daily or weekly in recovery? This article reviews basic principles for why and how exercise can help you in addiction recovery.

minute read
By Chris Jansen
ARTICLE OVERVIEW: This article reviews the benefits of exercise during addiction recovery….to give you some extra motivation to get your heart pumping!


Balance in the Body

Addiction recovery is all about restoring balance to the body. Through therapy, training, practice and support, people suffering from addiction can overcome their dependence on a substance or behavior, and find healthier ways to live.

Most accounts of addiction recovery tend to focus on mental aspects of recovery – and with good reason, as the mind is central to the process of personal growth and improvement. But the mind is also heavily influenced by the rest of the body, since changes in activity alter the body’s production of chemicals that help shape mood and behavior.

Diet, sleep patterns, and a person’s immediate environment can all greatly affect the success or failure of an addiction recovery effort.

But exercise is arguably as important as any of these factors, for reasons we list below. The main principle is this: When we ignore any of the three components of being – mind, body, or spirit – we are cutting off our lifeline to wellness.

Why Exercise?

So why do treatment centers or aftercare programs focus on exercise in the first place? Following are some of the reasons why recovery programs that include an exercise component were found by researchers to be more effective than programs that do not incorporate exercise. [1]

First, endorphins moderate brain chemistry. The brain is hard wired to experience and repeat pleasure. But when we use drugs and alcohol, this natural system gets tweaked. Exercise helps us establish balance again.

Second, exercise offers us better overall health and energy levels. Just think about how you feel after a vigorous 30 minute walk. Now, compare that to 30 minutes in front of the T.V. Hands down, circulating blood and oxygenating the cardiovascular system rewards us with energy…and wellness.

Finally, exercise can be a part of structured daily activities. When we use drugs and alcohol, we throw off rhythm cycles of sleeping and eating. Exercise can help us get back into these rhythms. When we set a regular daily or weekly exercise regimen, we settle into routine. And routine is good!

Benefits of Exercising in Recovery

If you or a loved one are entering a period of addiction recovery, consider the following advantages of exercise as you plan out your effort:

1. It puts you in a good mood.

Exercise releases endorphins, which creates feelings of happiness and activates the brain’s reward system. When you are in a better mood, you will feel more motivated to continue the addiction recovery process. A bonus effect is that the body will find it easier to say goodbye to the addictive substance or behavior, because it is getting the chemicals it needs from a new source.

2. It gives you energy.

Exercise wakes up your muscles and gets the blood pumping, sending more oxygen throughout your body. This heightened body state allows you to be more vigilant in fighting off urges, and helps give you the endurance needed to succeed in the long term.

3. It gets the stress out.

Even as exercise gives you new and positive energy, it also lets you release the built-up energy that comes from stress, anxiety, or other negative feelings. By cleansing your body of these negative forces, you will find yourself more free – and ready to focus your full attention on the challenge of recovery.

4. It gives you a new hobby.

People who are facing addiction issues should remain active; otherwise, they will need to spend more time thinking about (and fighting) their addictive impulses. By making exercise a regular part of your daily schedule, you can train your body to settle into a newer and more healthy routine.

5. It helps you sleep.

By using up your spare muscle energy during the day, exercise lets your body get ready for a full rest at night. A healthy sleep cycle is important for your body as it works to stay internally balanced.

What Kinds of Exercise?

Aerobics, outdoor activities, and yoga have been singled out as particularly effective types of exercise for people recovering from addiction. Aerobic exercise helps improve overall health, while yoga incorporates a meditative practice that enhances personal focus and reduces negative thoughts. By spending time outdoors, individuals can reconnect with nature and also boost their body’s production of vitamin D.

These recommendations match well with the experiences of addiction recovery experts at rehab centers around the world, many of which are adding an exercise component to their recovery programs. We spoke with Tony Tan, Clinical Director at The Dawn, a rehab in Thailand, for his take on the subject. He told us:

“When a person is trying to overcome addiction, the mind and body crave the substance that was producing endorphins and dopamine in the brain and creating the feeling of being “high”. Add to this is the stress of daily life, and the cravings can reach unbearable levels.

Vigorous exercise can also release endorphins, causing the client to feel a “runner’s high” — the same sensation of euphoria that accompanies a chemical high. Although it may be less intense than what the client used to experience with drugs or alcohol, the effects can be pleasurable both mentally and physically.

In fact, our experience of treating clients with substance abuse show that exercise can lead to a sense of accomplishment and increased confidence in staying sober. We have seen real success in their ability to maintain a strong recovery after treatment.”

As with addiction therapy techniques, different exercises can be more effective with some people than with others. Some clients are more suited to lower-intensity exercises like walking, yoga and Pilates, while others benefit from strenuous exercises like:

  • Core strength building
  • Hiking
  • Long distance cycling
  • Rafting
  • Rock climbing

Group exercise within natural settings can be a particularly effective way to foster unity during treatment. The exercise itself is a great help, but these activities also have the additional benefit of giving recovering addicts a feeling of family-like support as they participate, as well as exposing them to situations that require collaboration and peer support.

Finding Peace through a Well-Rounded Recovery Process

An ideal recovery process should include high-quality therapy that focuses on the body as well as the mind. A growing number of rehab centers are following this holistic model – including The Dawn, whose program includes advanced treatment techniques as well as a complementary program of physical healing and exercise.This combined physical and mental approach to recovery allows patients to have a rehab experience that is as enjoyable and revitalizing as it is effective.

Your Questions

Have questions about exercising?

Please leave us your questions – or personal experience – in the comments section below. We try to respond to all real life questions personally.

Reference Sources: [1] Scandinavian Journal of Public Health: Group exercise to improve quality of life among substance use disorder patients


About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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