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Exercise and Addiction Recovery: Why the Two Are Connected

5 minute read

Recovering from addictive substances and activities can be a long and challenging journey. The thought of exercising might feel overwhelming or, at the very least, not a high priority. You may be surprised to learn that incorporating exercise early in addiction treatment could be very beneficial to your recovery.

There are many kinds of exercise, including aerobic exercise, resistance exercise, and high-intensity training, among others. Some stages of addiction treatment and recovery are more suited to specific types of exercises than others. And everyone’s fitness level is different! There’s no one-size-fits-all exercise program. What you choose should be tailored to your circumstances and needs.

Curious why exercise is beneficial to addiction recovery? Learn more about that and how to incorporate it into your life while in treatment and then recovery, plus some tips on how to start exercising while avoiding major pitfalls.

Incorporating Exercise Into Addiction Treatment

You may be asking yourself, does exercise in addiction treatment actually help your recovery from addiction? Or is it more tailored to treating common conditions that often occur with addiction, like anxiety and depression? It turns out that exercise is beneficial for all these conditions. Improving anxiety or depression may aid in addiction treatment and vice versa.

Aerobic exercise early in addiction treatment may be of particular benefit for addiction treatment. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow throughout your brain and body. It also improves your cardiovascular health. This can be especially useful for treating substances like alcohol, which can decrease blood flow to the brain, resulting in decreased cognitive functioning.

Aerobic exercise is also associated with better sleep. Many people in early addiction recovery have trouble sleeping as the brain attempts to find a new baseline and equilibrium.

Aerobic exercise may also reduce cravings! Some research shows that as little as 30 minutes of aerobic exercise may reduce addiction cravings.

Exercise early in recovery should be taken at a slow pace and preferably under the care of a healthcare professional. Taking these precautions will decrease your risk of injury. This is especially important because those who have been using addictive substances for a long time may have nutrient deficiencies. Unaddressed nutrient deficiencies can increase the likelihood of injury.

If you’re entering an addiction treatment program, whether it’s inpatient or outpatient, ask if there is a gym, adventure therapy, dance, or other activities that encourage physical exercise.

Exercise and Addiction Recovery

After you start exercising in addiction treatment, you’ll want to keep this healthy practice up as you transition into long-term recovery. Breakthrough cravings for your substance of choice are very common, even after you’ve been in recovery for many years. Since aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease cravings, continuing to exercise while in addiction recovery will give you an outlet to cope with breakthrough cravings.

Research has also shown that exercise performed while in recovery from addiction prevents relapse. It does this by decreasing negative feelings or emotions and increasing positive feelings or emotions.

Addiction to exercise (fitness addiction) can occur, so you’ll want to make sure your exercise program isn’t becoming compulsive and obsessive. Your therapist is a great person to talk to about this.

More on Health and Wellness

Why Does Exercise Help?

If you’re wondering how exercise helps with the recovery process, there are a few theories that may help explain the benefits. While there is still a lot to learn about how the brain responds to various activities and stimuli, there are a few things we do know.

One hypothesis that explains how exercise is beneficial for addiction concerns the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine is the primary chemical involved in the reward pathway of your brain. That’s the same pathway affected by addictive drugs. Both addictive drugs and exercise increase dopamine in the reward pathway.

When you stop an addictive substance or activity, there’s a natural drop in dopamine that occurs. Exercise can help stop—or decrease—that drop. Essentially, the drop in dopamine and resulting negative feelings are less than they would be if you didn’t exercise.

Dopamine isn’t the only brain chemical that increases while exercising. Beta-endorphins are another type of brain chemicals that exercise releases. Endorphins are opioid chemicals released by your body that produce a sense of well-being. They also play a role in decreasing pain or discomfort. The endorphins released while exercising are often attributed to what people call the “runners high.” Early in recovery, feelings of dysphoria (“blah” feelings) and restlessness are common. The release of endorphins can help manage these feelings and potential relapses.

3 Tips for Incorporating Exercise Into Your Recovery

One of the biggest mistakes people make when they start exercising for the first time in a while is going too hard too quickly. Maybe you’ve had the experience of going to the gym after a long period of not going and jumping back into your routines and the weights you lifted when you exercised regularly. The next morning you roll out of bed because your body is so sore it’s difficult to move! Not only does this strain the body, but overdoing it the first time back decreases the likelihood you’ll return anytime soon.

1. Set an Exercise Goal That Is ½ Your Ability

Start off by planning to do about half of what you think you can do without causing too much soreness. So if you think you could walk two miles, make a goal of walking one mile. This will increase your inner confidence that you can accomplish something (AKA self-efficacy). Starting off slow also will ensure you’ll feel like working out again the next day.

2. Hydrate

Hydration is often gets overlooked, but proper water intake is essential for your body and muscles to work the way they need to! If you’re someone who sweats a lot, you’ll also want to ensure you’re replacing electrolytes by drinking a low-sugar sports drink or Pedialyte® throughout your workout.

3. Listen to Your Body

It’s always wise to listen to your body and what it’s telling you during a workout. Pushing yourself to the limit be a rewarding aspect of exercise, but you need to know the point at which your body is telling you to stop. Always listen to your body. Stop when it’s giving you the signs that you’re getting close to injuring yourself.

Addiction is a disease that you can put into remission with treatment. If you struggle with addiction, you’re not alone. Get help today, and learn about addiction treatment at Footprints to Recovery here.


Jenna Richer
Medically Reviewed by Jenna Richer, MSW, LCSW
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