Exercise and Addiction Recovery: Helping Maintain Sobriety

Exercise and Addiction Recovery: Helping Maintain Sobriety

Recovery from drug, alcohol and process addiction is often a long road. Therapy is usually a recommended component in rehabilitation, and many people choose programs that include treatments such as Motivational Interviewing (MI), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and 12 Step Recovery. 

However, the role of exercise in the recovery of addiction is often largely underestimated. A study on opioid-dependent rats has shown that regular swimming reduced their consumption of morphine, while rats that were given an exercise wheel were less likely to self-administer cocaine.

The brain’s reward centres are activated by a myriad of behaviours, including eating, sex, and even shopping. Addictions exploit the reward pathways in your brain. Exercise triggers the release of neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) that make you feel good. In fact, it causes the same positive changes in your brain as addictive drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Therefore, exercise is a healthy way to activate your brain’s reward systems. It’s a substance-free way to change your mood and cope with stress.

Exercise also promotes improved sleep – a challenge for many in early recovery. Physical activity during the day makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep, in turn also improving concentration, memory and cognitive performance. 

A regular exercise routine also helps to provide structure and daily purpose as you work through recovery. Routine offers predictability and balance, which are essential aspects of maintaining sustained sobriety. Significant changes in the lifestyle of a recovering addict or alcoholic can be overwhelming, and regular workouts can help provide stability as the individual transitions to sober living.

Emotional triggers such as boredom and frustration can often sabotage recovery, resulting in relapse. Exercise acts as a great coping strategy, not only because it actually gives the person something to do in order to replace drug-seeking behavior, but it also helps build the mental resilience to withstand negative behavior patterns.

Other advantages of exercise in drug rehabilitation and recovery include:

  • Exercise helps you combat anxiety and depression.
  • Exercise can help you build stronger relationships with others.
  • Exercise builds up your self-esteem.
  • When you exercise, you’re more present overall.
  • Regular exercise can help you keep positive thinking.
  • Exercise can improve self-esteem in people who have been struggling with addiction or substance misuse.
  • Exercise can help you manage your emotions.
  • Exercise brings up those same good feelings without the side effects of other behaviours or substances.
  • Exercise gives you something to look forward to.
  • Exercise may ease the cravings that keep you addicted

Recovery requires physical, mental, and emotional healing and exercise can help pave the way towards all three. Taking a positive step towards altering addictive habits will increase your chance of success at remaining clean from drugs or alcohol, thus strengthening your mind, body, and spirit in order to overcome addiction and live a more fulfilling life.

Image credit: Tim Foster on Unsplash

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