Regular exercise provides many health benefits, and these benefits can have a positive physical and emotional effect in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
However, 2011 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Americans are sorely lacking in exercise. Only 48 percent of adults met the National Physical Activity Guidelines for aerobic exercise and a scant 24 percent met the guidelines for muscle-strengthening workouts. Even fewer met both sets of guidelines, with 20 percent regularly engaging in both muscle-strengthening and aerobic activity.
Americans, however, have also been struggling with drug or alcohol addiction. Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse say that more than 100,000 people die from illicit drug and alcohol abuse every year.
Daily Exercise Goes a Long Way in Maintaining Sobriety
Including exercise in addiction recovery may go a long way toward helping individuals maintain long-term sobriety. Studies have already shown the idea is more than just anecdotal. In 2008, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) pledged $4 million to look into the effects of exercise on drug use. Studies from various sources are underway or have already been completed.
Not all are linked to NIDA, but each are returning a similar result: Exercise can have a beneficial effect not only in addiction treatment, but also as a way to prevent drug & alcohol abuse.
What Exercise Can Do to Help Drug Abuse and Addiction
A report published in the Frontiers of Psychology confirmed the beneficial effects of exercise by analyzing several studies that had been performed regarding the connection between exercise and mental health. The report noted:
- Any amount of exercise can be beneficial to physical and mental health
- Exercise can produce therapeutic effects in men and women
- Early exposure to exercise habits can have long-term positive effects on reducing drug abuse
- Exercise can work even after long bouts of not exercising to help treat drug and alcohol addiction
Other studies and reports confirm the benefits of exercise for the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction:
Reduces Cravings and Use
Decreases Effects of Drugs
Another bonus of regular exercise for those with drug & alcohol addiction is the ability to decrease the effects of certain drugs. Tufts University psychology professor and researcher Robin Kanarek found rats that exercised on running wheels were less susceptible to the effects of amphetamines, morphine, and nicotine.
Helps Repair Brain Damage
Another study published in the journal Synapse found that exercise can also help by restoring brain cells damaged by intense drug or alcohol abuse.
First, the study allowed rats to indulge in methamphetamine until the drug damaged their serotonin and dopamine receptors.
The researcher then left a select group of rats caged and idle while engaging a second group of rats in regular running sessions. While the caged and idle rats’ brains remained damaged, the rats that ran showed improvement in their brains’ affected receptors and the amount of overall damage was reduced.
Why Exercise Works to Help Drug Addiction
One of the foremost reasons exercise can work to prevent and treat addiction is its ability to produce “neurological rewards.” In other words, it can reproduce a “high” using the brains natural chemicals. While they may not experience the same type of high found with drug abuse, exercise has been shown to release dopamine, a chemical known for improving mood, and this can mitigate the effects of lows that drug or alcohol withdrawal can cause.
The high alone, however, is not the only reason exercise is so effective as part of a recovery program. CNN points out a lineup of other factors that may contribute to the success of exercise in recovery:
Fills a Void
Entering an addiction treatment program often means giving up old habits and relationships to deter chances of relapse. In some cases, this can translate to abandoning any type of social life or friends a person ever knew. Long-term sobriety often begins with a need for social connections and a lot of free time, both of which can be filled with a trip to the gym or joining an exercise group.
Offers Structure and Routine
A daily exercise helps establish a routine and add structure to a life that may have long lacked both. Instead of waking up without drugs and wondering what to do next, a regular exercise routine can serve as a means of establishing new habits and focusing on a healthy way of living.
Serves as Coping Mechanism
Instead of picking up a drink or drugs to reduce anxiety or stress, people can learn to turn to exercise. Just like meditation, deep breathing, or other tools people use to cope with daily stress, exercise can serve as a healthier outlet than coping through drug or alcohol use.
Gets People Back into Shape
One of the most obvious benefits of exercise is the effects it has on people’s bodies. Years of drug abuse can leave people exhausted and out of shape, both on the physical and mental levels. Exercise can improve both, especially for those who are trying to lose weight, gain muscle, or bring a tired, depleted body back to life.
Richard Brown, Director of Addictions Research at Butler Hospital, conducted an exercise study on heavy drinkers. The study found exercise prompted study participants to drink less and that the participants also enjoyed the exercise.
“They liked the fact that they were getting healthy and doing something for themselves,” Brown told CNN.
Reduces Anxiety and Stress
Regular physical activity has the ability to reduce the amount of anxiety and stress felt. Physical activity produces biochemical changes in the brain that pump up your endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, and can actually improve your mood.
A side effect of exercise can be an increase in self-esteem. Increased confidence can come from the improved physical appearance exercise typically produces, as well as a happier state. Confidence and self-esteem can often be at an all-time low after years of drug abuse.
Promotes Better Sleep
Exercise can lead to better sleep, something those early in the recovery process may be lacking. Brown points out that poor quality sleep is a common issue among those who have recently gone through withdrawal. He theorizes that those who are in early addiction recovery may seek out exercise as a way to get to some quality slumber.
Chronic drug abuse has negative effects on the brain, impairing thinking and other cognitive functions. Exercise has been shown to improve that functioning. Brown again poses a theory that people in recovery may turn to exercise as a way to help restore their brains to optimum potential.
Provides Positive Outlook
Exercise can not only help people think more clearly, but it can change the way they think. Current avid runner Mishka Shubaly, who was able to recover from his alcohol addiction, says exercise changed his entire view of the world, which he outlines in his best-selling memoir “The Long Run.”
He notes that alcohol was the ultimate proclamation of “I don’t care.” Exercise, for him, has become the opposite. It’s a means to show he does care, both about the world and himself.
“Doing the hard work of exercising totally reversed my worldview,” he told CNN. “I went from a life that was headed toward one thing to a life of nearly infinite potential.”
The feeling of a “high” that exercise produces can become addictive, that doesn’t sit well with some researchers. They hypothesize exercise simply becomes a replacement for drugs, with people substituting one addiction for another.
Not all researchers would classify exercise addiction as being the same as drug addiction. Psychology professor Mark Smith told CNN the two are “an apples-and-chainsaws comparison.”
Smith notes drug addiction can lead to widespread and lifelong devastation, often finalized by premature death. An exercise addiction, on the other hand, can result in improved health, boosted self-esteem, and “maybe some joint problems when you get older.”
The Bottom Line
Certain drug addiction treatment centers have begun to incorporate exercise into their programs, the Denver Post reports. They may create an exercise plan that people can follow during treatment at the center, along with a program they can do at home after discharge.
One more major benefit of exercise is to engage in and reinforce the concept of self-care. Many who have long suffered from drug abuse and addiction may have spent years ignoring this concept, exercise proves to be an effective tool for those individuals to restore their health and their lives.