Most people know how important exercise is, but do you know that it can be critical to addiction treatment and recovery? Studies from around the world show that physical activity not only decreases our desire for alcohol and drugs but helps support recovery, as well. “When you feel better, you’re less likely to engage in things that are bad for you,” Dr. Jordan Metzi, a sports medicine physician and author of The Exercise Cure, told U.S. News.

Louise Green, a certified personal trainer and former alcoholic, credits exercise for saving her life. “When I made the decision to get sober, I sought the help of a recovery program…The program was a springboard that helped me launch a new life, but when I really think about the success of my long-term sobriety, I credit it to fitness” she told Self.

Here at Solution Based Treatment & Detox, we believe that treating substance abuse is only the beginning of recovery. Physical fitness is an excellent way to continue that journey.

Exercise grants people in recovery what they need most: confidence and self-esteem, positive social interaction, a better way to have fun, an outlet to reduce stress, and an opportunity to form a new identity and healthier communities. Here’s how:

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Exercise Builds Confidence and Self-Esteem

Addiction and substance abuse can diminish our confidence and self-esteem. After weeks, months or years of using substances, it can be hard for those in recovery to have enough confidence in themselves to continue their journey. Restoring that confidence is a key component of a successful recovery. While affirmations, compliments, and mantras help build up a stronger sense of self, exercise is a tangible way to rebuild self-esteem and confidence. By setting and obtaining fitness goals, individuals come face-to-face with the reality that they can change and grow stronger.

Exercise also reminds individuals that change takes time. Just as physical fitness doesn’t happen overnight, the same is true for recovery. Exercise teaches us that overcoming addiction is an ongoing process and that consistency matters.

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Exercise is a Better, Healthier Distraction

A 2012 study published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 50% of high school seniors didn’t think it was harmful to try crack or cocaine a few times, while 40% believed it was not harmful to use heroin. A 2007 brief from the organization Childhood Trends indicated that by 8th grade, 28% of American adolescents had consumed alcohol, 15% had smoked cigarettes and 16.5% had used marijuana.

For many children, teenagers, and adults, drug and alcohol use are associated with fun distractions. Exercise can help reduce that temptation. Activities like swimming, hiking, dancing, basketball, football, tennis, and volleyball all provide healthy outlets for fun and diversion, and can help reduce cravings for anyone in active addiction.

“Exercise is a natural reward, like food and sex: Exercise releases endorphins and increases the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway in a way that’s similar to drugs and alcohol,” Lisa Robinson, a research associate of neuroscience at Albany Medical College in New York, told U.S. News.

Our natural levels of endorphins increase with exercise, helping satisfy the brain’s cravings for pleasure and rewards, a particularly effective strategy for people in recovery. In fact, in a Vanderbilt University study conducted on the effects of aerobic exercise and cannabis cravings, researchers found that after ten 30-minute sessions on a treadmill over two weeks, users were able to reduce their cravings by 50%.

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Exercise Reduces Stress & Mood Swings

A major cause of substance abuse disorder relapse is stress, particularly during early recovery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60% of people struggling with drug abuse experience some form of relapse. Of those, the majority experience some level of stress or anxiety before relapsing. Because exercise helps minimize mood swings and helps us cope with stress, it’s a great benefit for people in recovery.

There’s a reason why people tend to feel better after taking a walk or run after a long, stressful day. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect,” Dr. Michael Otto told the American Psychological Association.

Additionally, a Harvard School of Public Health study revealed that running for 15 minutes or walking for an hour a day reduced the risk of major depression by 26% in study participants.

Physical fitness increases the blood flow to the brain and stimulates the growth of new cells. This new cell growth, combined with the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters, can work to restore the damage done to the brain by substance abuse. This, in turn, helps the brain better handle stress and stabilizes mood swings.

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Exercise Provides Opportunities For New Identities

A key component of recovery is establishing a new identity independent of addictive substances. As people turn away from addictive behaviors and move past guilt and shame over the past, developing a sense of purpose is paramount. Joining a gym or fitness group allows individuals to identify themselves as a yogi, runner, swimmer, hiker, basketball, tennis or baseball player instead of a recovering addict. Instead of basing their identity on past actions, individuals can use exercise, and the qualities and characteristics it develops, to identify who they are becoming in the present.

Exercise also adds structure to the day, which is especially important for those leaving rehab. With boredom as one of the leading causes of relapse, having an active lifestyle keeps can also minimize relapse risk.

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Exercise Helps Create a Community of Health-Oriented People

One of the most difficult aspects of recovery is letting go of negative influences, especially relationships. That’s why building a community of like-minded people is so important. But oftentimes, building those relationships outside of a treatment program is difficult. Joining physical fitness groups, gyms and even working with a personal trainer is a great way to build relationships with people who prioritize healthy living. This kind of support is critical because it creates positive social interactions while promoting accountability and consistency at the same time.

“When we work out with other people we can gain a sense of camaraderie, because everyone is there for the same purpose,” trainer Davina Wongs told NBC News. “The people you see each week in a group class eventually become your family and want to see you back each week creating accountability.”

In fact, a study in the Journal of Social Sciences proved that people generally emulate the exercise and behavioral patterns of those around them. So instead of copying old patterns of behavior, those participating in an exercise regimen or fitness group are motivated and inspired by their new peers.

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Other Benefits of Exercise

While building self-confidence, reducing stress, creating better communities, diminishing cravings and finding a new sense of identity are some of our favorite benefits of exercise, there are plenty of other benefits associated with physical fitness. Some include:

  • Better sleep and restored circadian rhythms
  • Increasing physical strength
  • Stronger immune system and reduced risk of chronic illness and disease
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Healthy outlet for anger
  • Balances the brain’s neurotransmitters
  • Improved memory
  • Weight loss
  • Increased energy
  • Pain reduction

What Type of Exercise Helps Promote Recovery?

Knowing what types of exercises to choose during recovery can be somewhat difficult. Overall, evidence suggests that aerobic exercise is especially helpful because it reduces the risk of depression, which is often linked to substance abuse and relapse.

Aerobic exercise, more popularly known as “cardio,” is any form of fitness that strengthens the cardiovascular system by using oxygen. Examples of aerobic exercise are:

  • Jumping rope
  • Running or jogging
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Stationary bike or treadmill
  • Elliptical
  • Cardio kickboxing
  • Zumba & other forms of dancing
  • Spin class
  • Yoga
  • Cycling
  • Hiking

Anaerobic exercises, which are higher in intensity, break down glucose for energy without using oxygen. Often, these activities are short in length and high-powered. Some examples are:

  • Sprinting
  • Weightlifting
  • Heavy squats
  • High intensity interval training (HIIT)
  • Powerlifting
  • Plyometrics
  • Isometrics

Team sports such as basketball, baseball, football, volleyball, tennis, and soccer are also wonderful forms of exercise. Yoga is also extremely beneficial for those in recovery as it focuses on relaxing the mind, positive affirmations, and reducing stress.

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Exercise with Limits in Mind

As beneficial as exercise is, obsessing over your fitness level can be dangerous. A 2017 study indicated that over-exercising can even damage the heart. National guidelines suggest no more than 150 minutes of exercise a week. In addition to causing injuries, too much exercise can also lead to exercise addiction, which is characterized by exercising while injured or in secret and exercising despite wanting or needing to stop.

Exercise: A Critical Part of Our Recovery Program

Our mission at Solution Based Treatment & Detox is to assist and empower those suffering from addiction. We want to see our clients become the best version of themselves by reaching their highest potential. That’s why we include physical fitness as part of our comprehensive treatment plan. We understand that exercise builds confidence, helps to reduce cravings, relieves stress, improves mood swings, builds positive social interaction and gives our clients a chance to build a new, stronger sense of identity. If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or are in the process of recovery, reach out to a member of our staff today by calling 833.999.1941.

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