The Benefits of Exercise For Addiction Recovery

Ioana Cozma
Morgan Blair
Written by Ioana Cozma on 17 October 2023
Medically reviewed by Morgan Blair on 17 October 2023

For many, exercise has proven to be an important coping mechanism in addiction recovery, as it alleviates withdrawal symptoms and changes the brain chemistry that facilitates substance abuse. This article explains how fitness can help with recovery, the most effective exercises for recovery, and other healthy activities to maximize relapse prevention.

The Benefits of Exercise For Addiction Recovery

How can exercise help with recovery?

A PLOS ONE review that analyzed 43 studies with over 3,000 participants showcases that exercise reduced drug use in 75% of the conducted analyses. The review also highlights significant improvements in participants' physical and mental health, who ceased substance use while exercising.

One reason exercise helps with addiction recovery is that it increases cardiovascular and respiratory fitness and muscle strength. This leads to an improved circulation of oxygen and nutrients to the organs and the brain. The result is better mood, improved digestion, better quality sleep, and more mental focus, which can aid in the alleviation of severe withdrawal symptoms.

Exercise also improves people’s self-esteem, mood, and confidence. By comparison, the opposite feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression may lead people to relapse.

Fitness routines are also shown to rewire the brain’s reward system, neurogenesis, and gliogenesis. Exercise produces new neurons and non-neural cells in the hippocampus and frontal cortex. These neurons are tied to increased self-control. Moreover, the enhanced dopamine production that accompanies exercise helps people with addiction avoid drug use as an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Animal studies show that exercise-induced changes in the brain lessen the risk of relapse in animals with drug addictions, such as cocaine and amphetamine. Compared to sedentary rats, exercising rats self-administer fewer drugs. The reduced drug-seeking behavior persists even when the animals no longer have access to exercise means. Scientists believe that the same observations may be valid for human subjects. 

What forms of exercise are most beneficial for recovery?

The most beneficial forms of exercise for recovery are the ones adapted to your current fitness level and preferences. These fitness workouts bring the best results because you are most likely to follow them.

There is currently no research comparing different fitness routines and their effects on addiction treatment and sobriety. The existing literature has showcased that simple exercises, such as walking, cycling, jogging, and strength training, increase the success of recovery from cocaine, cannabis, alcohol, and opioids.

Most participants undergo simple routines three times per week. Regardless of the time spent, type of exercise, and chosen training, exercising participants have shown decreased drug usage and increased treatment adherence compared to passive participants.

Most recovery professionals advise people to start slowly, with low to medium intensity levels. This range has proven effects on heart health and respiratory fitness. Beginners may also find it easier to follow a lower-intensity exercise regimen than an intense, difficult one.

How often should I be exercising?

The current guidelines for American adults suggest 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week, combined with two days of strength training.

However, people should exercise according to their fitness levels. Individuals with addiction should especially prioritize their well-being and focus on recovery. Severe withdrawal symptoms may prevent you from working out, and even moderate-intensity exercise may prove too fatiguing.

Fitness should remain a tool and not a purpose in itself. As you start with low-intensity exercises such as walking or Pilates, you may also listen to your body and challenge yourself as your fitness level increases.

Is it possible for exercise to replace addiction behaviors?

People with behavioral addictions are more likely to replace them with other pleasurable and rewarding activities. Although fitness is typically a healthy part of self-care, it may be abused and transformed into an unhealthy coping mechanism.

Studies underline that exercise and drugs share a similar mechanism of increasing euphoria and well-being in humans and animals, influencing the endocannabinoid system. Thus, laboratory animals are shown to prefer rooms where they have consumed drugs or exercised, even when those rooms are empty.

This preference may indicate that people with addictive behavior may turn to exercise to escape or deal with difficult situations. It is important to stay aware of the risk and not use exercise as a means of deflecting. 

It is also important to allow the body time to rest and repair when exercising. Overexercising can lead to damaged muscles and reduced health, which can in turn affect mental health. Giving the body the appropriate time to heal and recover, as well as maintaining a healthy schedule, can ensure that regular exercise is beneficial and manageable.

Working out may provide space to process a challenging situation and has been shown to decrease stress levels. However, you should use the increase in focus, energy, and mental clarity to face difficult situations instead of ignoring them.

Other healthy activities to aid recovery

Whether you have noticed that exercise has a high addiction potential or want to maximize its effects, you can always explore other healthy activities.

Meditation has been proven to enhance mental clarity and reduce anxiety. Meditation may help you cultivate mindfulness to understand and avoid triggers. Meditation also lets you control overwhelming stress or negativity so you can find appropriate coping techniques.

Healthy nutrition also plays a pivotal role in recovery, boosting your immune system and energy levels. Your body requires essential vitamins and minerals to function optimally and fight withdrawal symptoms.

Holistic approaches, like acupuncture, massage, or aromatherapy, offer physical and psychological benefits in addiction treatment. They address the individual as a whole, considering both mind and body, and may often complement more traditional recovery methods.

Lastly, celebrating sobriety milestones boosts your morale and motivation. Celebrations, no matter how small, remind you of your progress and resilience, helping you stay committed to your recovery journey.

Resources:

  1. Piché, F., Daneau, C., Plourde, C., Girard, S., & Romain, A. J. (2023). Characteristics and impact of physical activity interventions during substance use disorder treatment excluding tobacco: A systematic review. PloS one, 18(4), e0283861.
  2. Ruegsegger, G. N., & Booth, F. W. (2018). Health Benefits of Exercise. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 8(7), a029694.
  3. Melemis S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
  4. Smith, M. A., & Lynch, W. J. (2012). Exercise as a potential treatment for drug abuse: evidence from preclinical studies. Frontiers in psychiatry, 2, 82.
  5. (n.d.). How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  6. Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., & Kim, S. R. (2011). Clarifying exercise addiction: differential diagnosis, co-occurring disorders, and phases of addiction. International journal of environmental research and public health, 8(10), 4069–4081.
  7. Amatriain-Fernández, S., Budde, H., Gronwald, T., Quiroga, C., Carreón, C., Viana-Torre, G., Yamamoto, T., Imperatori, C., Machado, S., & Murillo-Rodríguez, E. (2021). The Endocannabinoid System as Modulator of Exercise Benefits in Mental Health. Current neuropharmacology, 19(8), 1304–1322.

Activity History - Last updated: 17 October 2023, Published date:


Reviewer

Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan is a mental health counselor who works alongside individuals of all backgrounds struggling with eating disorders. Morgan is freelance mental health and creative writer who regularly contributes to publications including, Psychology Today.

Activity History - Medically Reviewed on 14 October 2023 and last checked on 17 October 2023

Medically reviewed by
Morgan Blair

MA, LPC

Morgan Blair

Reviewer

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