Addiction is a chronic condition that affects people both physically and psychologically. Frequently, a person living in recovery needs to make drastic changes to mitigate the risks of relapsing. A person can introduce a healthy structure and routine into their lives by engaging in a regular exercise routine. 

There are psychosocial benefits to playing a sport or joining a gym, but there is evidence that engaging in regular physical activity can reduce the risk of relapse by benefiting recovering addicts in a number of ways.

In this article, we will explore the various ways regular exercise can help people struggling with addiction. But first, let’s learn a bit more about what exercise does for our minds and bodies.

What Does Exercise Do For the Brain?

When a person exercises, their brains produce beta-endorphins, which are chemicals that reduce pain and induce positive feelings of well-being similar to the effects of morphine. The presence of beta-endorphins also causes a person’s brain to make more serotonin and dopamine—neurotransmitters that are involved in the brain’s reward system. The natural high that results, also known sometimes as “runner’s high,” is a euphoric state that is proven to do the following:

  • Reduce stress
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Reduce depression
  • Improve feelings of well-being
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Improve sleep 

So, what do we know so far? Exercise helps a person’s body produce chemicals that reduce their physical and emotional pain. Also, these chemicals act like morphine, producing a euphoric state and fostering a positive attitude.

What Does Excercise Do For Behavior?

Regular exercise is habit-forming. The positive, euphoric feelings produced during exercise are—in a literal sense—addictive. A person can use regular exercise as a replacement for using habit-forming substances. Some studies suggest that regular physical activity can help reduce the intensity of cravings and alleviate the stress, anxiety, and irritability associated with withdrawal symptoms.

A Different Social Network

Gyms, sporting clubs, pools, and other social groups centered around physical activity can replace the harmful social networks that may have initiated, reinforced, and rewarded substance abuse. Engaging with communities that are focused on health, wellbeing, and growth can help a recovering addict avoid communities that are focused on substance abuse.

Joining a sports team adds an extra layer of accountability to the equation. When a person’s teammates are relying on them to be present and committed to the team’s success, they are more likely to avoid relapsing into old patterns of behavior successfully. 

The Benefits of a Routine

Any addiction treatment center or alcohol inpatient rehab center would agree that establishing a routine is essential for providing the necessary structure that a recovering addict needs in their life. At residential addiction treatment centers, patients are given a full schedule of activities—from individual and group therapy sessions to regular meals and activities. 

When a person is living in recovery, they need to adhere to a similar, structured routine to avoid a relapse. Keeping a regular exercise routine is one way to add structure to a person’s life. Whether through regular classes, meet-ups, or through one-on-one training, having a full calendar of exercise sessions will help a person stay focused and relapse-free.

What Kind of Exercise is Best?

Both aerobic exercises—like running or swimming—and strength training elevate heart rate and produce euphoria-inducing beta-endorphins. One isn’t better than the other. However, both should be incorporated into a person’s exercise regime. 

Exercise is a Great Supplemental Treatment for Addiction

As mentioned above, there are many notable benefits to exercise that make it a valuable tool for fostering a healthy self-image, keeping a regular schedule, and dealing with sudden urges, cravings, and other temptations facing people recovering from drug addiction. However, exercise alone isn’t enough. Exercise should be thought of as a supplemental treatment that runs parallel to other proven addiction treatments, like medication-assisted treatment and psychotherapy. It can’t be the sole pillar on which a person supports their entire recovery, but it can—and should—be practiced as part of a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.

By Jenn Walker

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