Recovery can be challenging, but fortunately we have a lot in our toolbox to help. One of those tools is, yes, physical exercise.
While exercise on its own can’t defeat addiction, it’s been demonstrated that it can, in fact, help when combined with medication and other treatment. Aerobic exercise has been demonstrated as having an inverse association with substance abuse; that is to say, people who exercise more are less likely to develop a disorder in the first place. This may indicate that exercise helps reduce relapse, although more studies are still needed.
So, how does exercise help?
It Distracts From Cravings
Engaging in regular exercise helps distract you from your cravings. While engaged in physical activity, most people focus on it and not on their next fix (or, for that matter, on the factors that drove them to drugs in the first place). Also, exercise increases the functioning of the brain’s frontal areas, the part of the brain involved in the ability to inhibit cravings and say no to drugs. Because exercise itself feels good, it can (with care) be used as a replacement fix.
It also helps you resist even if you are returning to the environment in which you started taking in the first place, which has been known to induce a relapse.
It Helps Build Social Connections
Joining a group exercise or yoga class, or engaging in an activity that requires working with teammates and/or a coach, can build exactly the kind of positive social connections that help people have less need for whatever they are dependent on.
Failing that, finding a workout buddy can help both with social connections and with compliance with your exercise routine in the first place.
Exercise Reduces Depression and Anxiety that Lead to Drug Addiction
Depression causes drug use causes depression. Exercise releases feel-good chemicals into the brain that reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression, helping reduce cravings and restoring mental health.
It acts to reduce stress, regardless of the cause. You should exercise three to five times per week for maximum benefit. For some people, exercising outdoors increases the effect (because it also forces you to get out of your home and get a change of scenery.
Exercise Reduces Post-Quit Weight Gain
For some drugs, including nicotine, weight gain is common after recovery. Increasing exercise can help counter this, and deal with the temptation to relapse to get the weight back off.
It Improves Motivation to Quit Drug Addiction
Getting fit is an important goal, and most people develop some motivation to improve themselves. This translates into being more motivated to overcome the addiction, and helps you focus on the goal of staying both healthy and sober.
So, are there any things to be careful of? The answer is, yes.
Exercise Addiction is a Thing
If you don’t also address the cause of your addiction, then your brain may be looking for something else to get addicted to. This is one reason why people in recovery may overeat.
Some people become addicted to the endorphin release from exercise, and may engage in extreme fitness practices to get a “fix,” beyond what is healthy.
You Have to Keep it Up
An exercise habit isn’t just something to do in rehab; it is, or should be, a lifestyle change. Key to this is choosing an exercise regime that works for you. While in rehab, you may be encouraged to specific activities and you can keep them up, but if you find something you genuinely enjoy, try it. Maybe try something, like soccer or tennis, that you always wanted to try as a child and never did. Picking up a new physical hobby can help you start a new life and associate with people not connected to old habits.
Beating drug addiction is tough and you should use all of the tools available to you. Exercise is an important tool, and you should find a physical activity you enjoy to help you stay sober and move on with your life.