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4 Ways Exercise Combats Addiction

By Constance Ray

Many of those locked inside a substance abuse disorder do further damage to themselves by neglecting basic human needs, including nutrition and exercise. This can take its toll on both the mind and body, leaving behind psychological damage that can thwart physical recovery.

Starting a new fitness routine as a part of a treatment plan offers a number of whole health benefits. Four of these are:

  1. Exercise releases physical and mental stress. Tension happens to the body naturally with everyday activities, such as working and managing a household. Surprisingly, physical tension can build even when the body is at rest; poor posture and uncomfortable conditions can cause stress without the person even realizing it. Emotional stress and tension comes from negative interactions with friend and coworkers, money troubles, and even helping kids with homework. Exercise gives the body an outlet for all this built-up pressure. Having a positive way to expel this emotional energy can reduce the chances of relapse by helping manage stressors, move beyond triggers, and fight cravings when they arise. The National Addiction Institute explains more about stressors, triggers, and craving.
  2. Exercise actually changes brain chemistry. When an addict’s brain is exposed to their substance of choice, it releases chemicals called endorphins, which provide pleasure to the brain. The same chemicals are released during and after exercise. Unlike drug-triggered endorphins, those from exercise encourage the brain to regulate itself. Harvard University notes that exercise can also encourage the growth and survival of brain cells, which can become damaged with long-term drug use.
  3. Exercise helps refocus thought and emotions. Like mediation, exercise allows a person to experience psychological benefits from separating mind and body. During activities such as running, hiking, or weightlifting, the brain switches gears and no longer prioritizes negative thoughts and emotions. What this means for an addict, is that, at least temporarily, working out takes away the thoughts that may otherwise lead to a craving and ultimately relapse. Shape describes this phenomenon as “deprioritizing cravings.” The health magazine notes that regular exercise also works to reset the body’s natural rhythm, which is often disputed by drug and alcohol use.
  4. Exercise improves overall health and wellness. The physical and mental changes that come with taking care of oneself offer a distraction beyond the moment of activity. Exercise affects every system of the body including the cardiovascular and muscular systems. Flexing muscles and joints improves a person’s ability to perform daily activities, such as taking care of a home or tasks associated with a career. The CDC also claims that exercise improves mental health. These benefits make the body and mind feel whole and healthy and when a person feels good, they aren’t as likely to seek pleasure from outside sources.

There is no singular fitness routine that works for everyone. Those new to physical exertion should begin slowly and pay attention to the activities they enjoy and build onto those. For instance, one who likes walking may take up hiking or jogging. Likewise, a person who enjoys lifting weights may also enjoy other muscle-based activities, such as rock climbing. Whatever routine is chosen, it should incorporate aerobic and anaerobic activities; specific exercises should also be varied to avoid overworking one part of the body.

Exercise should never be an afterthought, especially for those in addiction recovery. It should be part of a whole-health way of life that includes a well-rounded diet, positive social activities, and counseling. Even if a strict routine many not be possible, most people can find ways to sneak in a quick workout in the form of playing with the kids, doing yard work, or parking far from building entrances to fit in as many steps as possible.

Substance abuse disorders are not “cured” by exercise alone. However, exercise is a valuable tool in the fight against this debilitating mental health disorder. For more information on physical and mental health issues relating to drug abuse, visit the National Institute on Drug Abuse.