We all know that exercise is good for our health. It promotes strong muscles. It decreases our risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and countless other chronic conditions. Exercise can even improve our mental health, helping us better control mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
But does exercise help with addiction?
In a word: Yes! Exercise offers many physical, mental, and social benefits that can be hugely helpful in your journey to sobriety from drugs and alcohol. This is why many addiction treatment centers encourage their patients to exercise during and after their rehab program.
How exactly does exercise help you with your recovery efforts? Let’s take a closer look at the connection between fitness and recovery.
How Does Exercise Help with Addiction?
To understand how exercise can help in your recovery journey, it’s important to first look at the relationship between physical activity and substance use.
Research suggests that a regular fitness routine decreases an individual’s risk of developing substance abuse disorders. In fact, research published in the Journal Progress in Preventive Medicine revealed that teens who participated in sports were 22-23% less likely to use tobacco products, 13% less likely to binge drink, and decreased the risk of other illicit drugs use1.
These findings are especially important when we consider that most people struggling with addiction begin using substances as teens2. Sports and other forms of exercise are a great way to help the young people in your life avoid drug and alcohol misuse, which can establish healthy habits for the rest of their lives. But what about the people who are already struggling with addiction? Studies suggest that exercise does help with their addiction recovery, too.
10 Ways Exercise Can Benefit Recovery
In the same way that regular exercise can help prevent drug use, it can also help individuals as they work towards sobriety from drugs. People who are working to overcome their addiction often make exercise a regular part of their recovery activities, along with outpatient rehab and other programs.
But what exactly does exercise do to help your recovery efforts? Here are just a few of the ways exercise benefits people with substance use disorders.
- Forms Healthy Habits
Everyone should make exercise a regular part of their routine — and if you stick to it, it can become a lasting habit. Research suggests that consistent exercise becomes habitual after just six weeks3!
The habit-forming element of exercise is particularly important for individuals in recovery. Replacing your substance use habit with another healthier habit can be instrumental in preventing relapse.
- Helps You Fight Cravings
One of the most difficult things about addiction recovery is resisting cravings when they strike. While exercise may not be able to banish cravings for good, it can give you the strength and vitality required to abstain from substances and stay sober.
Exercise increases blood flow, which helps oxygen and nutrients move through your body and to your muscles more quickly. This results in more energy and even greater mental clarity and cognition4. These benefits can help you avoid drugs or alcohol — even in the midst of a craving.
- Eases Withdrawal Symptoms
One question addiction specialists often hear is, “does exercising help detox?” Simply put, it can; in a meta-analysis of 22 studies, researchers found that physical exercise eased withdrawal symptoms by up to 95%5! Exercise during drug withdrawal can help you get through the detox period with much less pain and discomfort.
However, it is important to note that exercise cannot treat detox symptoms exclusively. Individuals going through detox should always be under medical supervision in case of any dangerous complications. It’s best to go through withdrawal at a detox center, where healthcare professionals experienced with addiction can provide medication (if necessary) and counseling in addition to other recovery activities.
- Relieves Stress
Every person in recovery has their own unique substance use triggers, but stress is one trigger that many people share. Exercise can help relieve stress, which is yet another reason why working out is a beneficial addiction recovery activity.
Exercise helps you release tension and improves your mood, and some research even shows that regular exercise increases a person’s ability to cope with stress6. This is paramount for folks in recovery, as stress can be a driving factor behind relapse.
- Gives You Structure and Routine
A regular fitness regimen helps protect your brain against stress in two ways: with the exercises themselves and the routine. Research shows that structure and predictability help your brain combat stress — which is why individuals in rehab or sober living environments require a consistent schedule7.
Creating an exercise routine is a great way to maintain that structure even after you leave addiction treatment. If you attend a weekly exercise class, work with a trainer, join a local sports club, or simply build your own fitness routine at home, both your body and mind will benefit from the consistent schedule.
- Helps You Connect with Others
One of the greatest assets a person in recovery can have is a strong support network. While this can take the shape of family members and some friends you knew before starting your recovery journey, it’s often important to make connections with other people who have dealt with addiction and gone through rehab.
Exercise is a great way to connect with others — particularly other folks in recovery. There are many running clubs, sports teams, and other programs designed for people recovering from substance use disorders, where you find other people who understand your situation and are committed to helping you overcome your addiction.
- Boosts Your Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is an important factor in someone’s recovery story. Individuals who have healthy self-confidence and high levels of self-esteem are more likely to continue their recovery activities and maintain sobriety. Therefore, it is very important for people in recovery to work on building their self-esteem.
Fitness is a great way to build your confidence. The energy boost and improved cognitive function you get from exercising can help you feel more confident — not to mention the way that exercise helps you look healthier and stronger!
- Strengthens Your Body
As we just mentioned, exercise can help you both look and feel stronger. This is important for people recovering from addiction because substance use can have many negative effects on one’s health.
Research shows that addiction and substance misuse can increase your risk of8:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Lung disease
- Hepatitis B and C
- And many other health conditions
While addiction can increase the risk of these diseases, exercise can reduce your risk of the same conditions. This is yet another reason why exercise is a great part of drug or alcohol addiction treatment.
- Improves Your Sleep
Many people in addiction recovery also suffer from insomnia, a condition that interferes with sleep. Sleep deprivation can contribute to increased stress and unrest — but exercise can offer a long-term solution.
According to research, exercise improves sleep quality across all parameters: sleep time, sleep efficiency and wake after sleep onset9.These improvements can work wonders for people in recovery, helping them feel better overall on a daily basis.
- Alters Your Brain Chemistry
Finally, let’s talk about the greatest benefit of exercise after drug use: exercise alters your brain chemistry. There are two main ways this occurs. Firstly, exercise releases dopamine and endorphins into your system. These chemicals affect your brain’s pleasure center — the same region that’s affected when you use drugs or alcohol. Exercise can offer a similar mental stimulation as substance use without the negative effects of addiction.
Secondly, exercise can help protect your body from the effects of substance use. For example, a study from the University of Colorado reports that exercise can protect the brain’s white matter from damage caused by alcohol; the study found that people who didn’t exercise were more likely to experience a loss of control after drinking than people who did10!
Exercise as a Treatment for Addiction
The research above makes it clear that fitness and recovery are closely connected. This is why we strongly recommend that people working toward sobriety make exercise a part of their routine. However, it is important to remember that exercise is only one type of addiction recovery activity — and that if you want to maintain sobriety, you need to use as many tools as possible.
At Better Addiction Care, we know that the best way to start on your recovery journey is to seek help from a rehab center. These facilities can give you expert care and help you uncover the root of your addiction. Spending time in treatment is a great way to build a foundation on which you can create a new, substance-free life.
Find Help Today
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call Better Addiction Care at (800) 429-7690. Our team can connect you with a program that can help you regain control of your life and your health. Calls are always free and confidential, so don’t hesitate to speak with our treatment advisors today.
- Brellenthin, A., PhD and Lee, D., PhD. (2018, May 11). “Physical Activity and the Development of Substance Use Disorders: Current Knowledge and Future Directions.” Progress in Preventative Medicine. Retrieved April 26, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6192057/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014, January). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/introduction
- Kaushal, N. et al. (2015, August). “Exercise habit formation in new gym members: a longitudinal study.” Journal of Behavioral Medicine. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25851609/
- Erickson, K. et al. (2020, June 1) “Physical Activity, Cognition, and Brain Outcomes: A Review of the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6527141/
- Raju, R. (Ed.). (2014, October 16). “Impact of Physical Exercise on Substance Use Disorders: A Meta-Analysis.” PLoS One. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4199732/
- Childs, E. & de Wit, H. (2014, May 1). “Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults.” Frontiers in Physiology. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4013452/
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, February 15). “Protect your brain from stress.” Harvard Medical School. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). What are the other health consequences of drug addiction? National Institutes of Health. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/addiction-health
- Hollis, K. (2014, September 1). “Aerobic Exercise Moderates the Effect of Heavy Alcohol Consumption on White Matter Damage.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Retrieved April 27, 2022 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3708994/
Ready to Get Help?
Let our team of Addiction Counselors help find the Right Rehab for You!