“… these studies have provided convincing evidence to support the development of exercise-based interventions to reduce compulsive patterns of drug intake in clinical and at-risk populations.”
~Mark Smith and Wendy Lynch, Exercise As a Potential Treatment for Drug Abuse: Evidence from Preclinical Studies
Chronic substance abuse interferes with your ability to function normally – when actively addicted, your sleep, your eating habits, your relationships, and even how you feel are all disrupted. As your brain is hijacked by addiction, healthy balance is compromised.
But there is good news – more and more research is beginning to show how vigorous exercise during recovery can help support your continued sobriety.
The Role of Exercise During Addiction Recovery
Exercise serves as a positive alternative for substance use because it reinforces brain adaptations that can increase a person’s resistance to a drug or alcohol disorder.
For example, exercise can ease symptoms of both anxiety and depression – two disorders strongly associated with substance abuse. It does this in several ways:
- By promoting the release of several “feel-good” chemicals – endocannabinoids, endorphins, and several different neurotransmitters. This is the famous “runner’s high”.
This suggests that physical activity may activate the same “reward” pathways within the brain as addictive substances. This means that physical activity can serve as a healthy alternative to drug or alcohol.
- By reducing stress
- By boosting the immune system
- By improving your quality of sleep. Poor sleep is a major symptom of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse withdrawal. Left untreated, sleep disturbances can trigger a relapse.
- By promoting increased self-esteem. Most people with an addictive disorder struggle with a negative self-image and turn to substance use as a means of self-medication.
A Healthy Habit
One of the main symptoms of an addictive disorder is when a person spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing about, acquiring, using, and recovering from intoxicating substances.
During recovery, a person who is newly sober may find themselves with an excess of time on their hands, and boredom can be counterproductive to successful recovery. Many people relapse simply because they are lacking positive stimulation.
A regular exercise program means that the recovering addict/alcoholic always has a positive activity to engage in, regardless of time of day, lack of funds, or location.
Animal Studies about Exercise and Recovery
There have been numerous studies that highlight the benefits of physical activity as a means to combat substance abuse:
- Lab rats that had access to exercise consumed cocaine less often than rats that were forced to be sedentary.
- In a separate study, lab rats that could use a running wheel demonstrated far less amphetamine consumption than rats without access.
- When rats that exercised were allowed unlimited access to liquid cocaine, their use was considerably less than that of their non-exercising peers.
- The most encouraging study suggests that regular exercise virtually eliminates relapse, even when the exercise regime is halted, suggesting that the positives of physical activity may last much longer than an individual exercise session.
Physical activity also results in decreased consumption of alcohol and a reduction in the euphoria produced by opioids. Cocaine…amphetamines…alcohol…opioids – the positive effects that exercise has on addiction seem to be universal.
Exercise is an excellent addition to any structured program of recovery from addiction, and can be an integral part of the healthy lifestyle changes required by a successful return to sobriety.