Exercise in Addiction Recovery
Exercise in addiction recovery can be free and also fun. Even more importantly, it can actually strengthen the quality of your recovery.
There can be many different components to a successful and healthy recovery from addiction, some are more important than others.
When considering all parts of us that require healing in recovery, mental and physical health are at the top of the list.
Neglecting physical health can impact on our mental health and vice versa. Thankfully, exercise can help in both of these areas and has been proven to be very effective in assisting recovery from all types of substance misuse disorder (1)
Active addiction is a full-time job! Coming into recovery we all of a sudden find we have a lot more time on our hands. What we do with that time can be essential to our wellbeing. The healthier we are in recovery and the more we enjoy recovery, the more likely we are to stay in recovery.
Exercise in addiction recovery can take on many forms. As unique individuals, with varying capabilities, it is down to us to find what form of exercise suits us and our lifestyle.
Here, Recoverlution look at why exercise plays an important role in addiction recovery, the different types of exercise & who they suit. We also look at the key benefits exercise offers to a person recovering from addiction, and how exercise can be implemented to enhance your life.
What types of exercise can help with addiction recovery?
All types of exercise can be beneficial in addiction recovery. How exercise benefits you and what types of exercise will work best, depends very much on your personal motivation for doing it.
When we think of exercise, we often think of joining the gym. Many of us are guilty of starting an exercise programme only to give up on it shortly after. This usually happens because we become bored, busy or unmotivated. The type of exercise programme we choose is therefore crucial to keeping us engaged.
When choosing a type of exercise to enhance recovery from addiction, it is helpful to consider why we want to exercise… Is it to get fitter? To lose weight? To gain muscle, or become more flexible? Is it to increase stamina and energy? Is it to enhance mobility? or, so we can spend time in the company of others?
Different types of exercise offer varying benefits, these benefits can be to our health, peace of mind, fitness, body image and even our social life.
Once we understand what we wish to gain from exercise, we can then consider the types of exercise that fit.
Who benefits from exercise in addiction recovery
Anyone can benefit from exercise, regardless of age, health, physical ability or financial means. There are so many different forms of exercise available that even the unhealthiest or disadvantaged can find something that suits and enhances their lifestyle.
Exercise can benefit those in addiction recovery who:
- Want to improve their physical health
- Want to improve their mental health
- Are struggling with anxiety and depression
- Want a safe outlet for negative emotions
- Feel alone and are struggling to socialise
- Need to overhaul their lifestyle
- Want to be able to sleep better
- Find something to relieve boredom
- Need to feel more motivated
- Want increased energy levels
- Wish to feel more focused
- Want to improve mood
- Want to increase self-confidence and self-esteem
- Seek a healthier recovery from addiction
Yes, exercise really can help with all of these things!
Mind, body, spirit
In recovery from addiction, we learn we have to take better care of ourselves. Neglecting one area can knock the rest out of kilter and leave us vulnerable to relapse.
Exercise in addiction recovery is excellent for improving the mind, (2) body and spirit all at the same time. We can become more aware of our own individual needs through practising regular exercise. As well as improving our physical health, exercise improves our mental health and helps us to feel more connected to our spirit and emotions.
Simple practices such as walking, Tai chi and yoga have been proven to help support drug and alcohol detoxification, providing there is someone to accompany and ensure safety (3)
That’s the beauty of exercise, you can choose to engage in exercise alone or with others.
Exercise classes and competitive sports such as badminton, tennis, squash or boxing, encourage exercising with others. This can be very enjoyable, providing much needed motivation, and stimulation and assisting social recovery.
Exercising alone has its own benefits. It can be a time where you process certain things weighing on your mind. It can also help you to focus, reducing anxiety and providing clarity as the mind naturally slows down.
Practices such as yoga, mindful walking and tai chi help to focus on the moment and have a certain spiritual lifestyle that accompanies them. This can assist in the overall healing process and give further purpose to recovery.
The benefits of exercise in addiction recovery
There are several reasons behind exercise’s effectiveness in aiding recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
Regular exercise includes, but is not limited to the following benefits:
It reduces stress levels
Recovering from addiction is incredibly stressful. At times it can feel overwhelming. This cannot be overstated, nor can it be underestimated. Stress levels will often be high. The physiological symptoms of this can have their own adverse effects – high blood pressure, muscular tension, and heightened cortisol levels, to name just a few.
This kind of stress can also lead to relapse if not taken in hand. Exercise is one of the best ways to manage it (4) .The natural endorphins released during exercise significantly improve mood and naturally diminish stress levels, whilst the cardiovascular benefits of exercise will improve circulation, which further helps in reducing stress.
Regular exercise can improve overall mood in addiction recovery
This goes far beyond managing stress. The improvement to anybody’s mood from maintaining an active lifestyle is profound (5) Often in recovery, especially in the early days whilst the brain is still recovering from active addiction, mood can be extremely low, as can motivation levels. Sudden mood swings are common as the brain grapples to readjust and suppressed emotions come to the surface.
Addiction provides an artificial high. It is often also used to self-manage separate, yet related mood disorders or concerns. Taking away the addictive substance – taking away these highs and opening the mind up to clarity over our own feelings, can leave us extremely vulnerable.
Exercise doesn’t just simply release endorphins, it teaches our bodies to naturally produce them, eliciting feelings of happiness, contentedness, and overall improved wellbeing. Just 30 minutes per day is enough to bring about a positive and substantial change in mood.
Exercise leads to a better quality sleep & improved energy levels
Insomnia or related conditions are perfectly normal during recovery. Regular exercise can help here, too. It can improve our ability to switch off and go to sleep, and can lead to an improved quality of sleep (6)
Exercise can also elevate energy levels, above and beyond the benefits of improved sleep (7) Though it may seem at first there is less energy, having expended it on exercise, the reverse is generally true (at least after the first few weeks of training).
As fitness levels improve, you will find that you have more energy as your metabolic rate rises, your circulation improves, your bloodstream is better oxygenated, and your body becomes more efficient in accessing energy reserves.
Add this to the improved mood and you have a recipe for happier, more energetic living, making use of purely natural, healthy highs.
Regular exercise strengthens the immune system
Active drug and alcohol addiction greatly compromises the immune system's health. This in turn leaves us more prone to colds, flu and viruses, and generally feeling run down. An unhealthy immune system also increases the risk of more serious and life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, stroke, heart disease, depression, diabetes and osteoporosis.
Regular exercise has been proven to reduce the risk of suffering from any of these (8) building up your immune system and removing many of the associated risk factors (9)
It helps to structure a more virtuous cycle
Getting into the habit of regular exercise can help to structure a virtuous cycle, the complete opposite to the destructive and repetitive cycles commonly associated with addiction. Exercise provides a sense of control and self-empowerment, something that is sorely lacking during active addiction.
Regular physical exercise can help to structure a healthier routine and add a sense of purpose, increasing self-esteem and building confidence. It also provides a healthy outlet rather than self-sabotaging everything you have worked towards.
Regular exercise can help prevent relapse
We’ve saved the best until last, here. Regular exercise can help to avoid relapsing back into addiction.
In fact, data suggests that exercise can increase abstinence from alcohol in alcohol addiction, by up to 95% (10)
This is in large part due to a combination of the above factors, so there is no reason why it can help prevent relapse in other addictive disorders. Exercise will lead you in a more virtuous cycle, with more robust mental health, improved energy levels and a greater sense of wellbeing and control.
Addiction, the brain & exercise - Achieving a healthy and focused mind in addiction recovery
Evidence suggests that physical activity influences many of the same signalling molecules and neuroanatomical structures that mediate the positive reinforcing effects of drugs and alcohol. Exercise produces protective effects through both the development of, and recovery from, a substance use disorder (11)
Exercise can also help in overcoming a process or behavioural addiction, where a person gets ‘high’ from compulsively engaging in a particular activity, such as sex, gambling or shopping.
It is not the actual drug, drink or activity that is the problem in addiction, it is the diseased brain that drives a person to progressively destructive extremes, constantly obsessing over and seeking that elusive high.
Behaviour, substances and actions in addiction, flood the brain with rewarding chemicals. In recovery, we feel the loss of these chemicals, sometimes to such a degree that returning back to active addiction becomes an appealing option.
Keeping a balance during recovery from addiction
As with all things in life, balance is key. Exercise needs to be enjoyable and challenging to keep our interest.
Balance and moderation in recovery from addiction is something many of us struggle with, adopting an ‘all in, or all out attitude’. There needs to be room for error and self-forgiveness. Berating ourselves for falling short only enforces negative feelings.
Listening to our body is key in recovery; exercise should be an added enjoyable and beneficial component to a healthy long-term recovery, it should not be the only component as then it becomes an addiction in itself. Any addiction, even when it is to healthy and natural things, compromises and impacts on other areas of life.
So, with everything new in recovery, explore, have fun and enjoy the experience. Find the type of exercise that engages and benefits you, and enhances a healthy lifestyle. Knowing that you have an extra and valuable tool in your recovery kit to help prevent relapse!
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- NIH - Impact of physical exercise on substance use disorders - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4199732/
- NIH- Exercise for mental health - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
- APA The exercise effect https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise#:~:text=%22Usually%20 within%20five%20minutes%20after,%2C%20 population%2Dbased%20correlation%20studies.
- Exercising to Relax - Harvard Health Publishing - Harvard - https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax
- Exercise and mood - https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/exercise-and-mood
- Exercising for better sleep https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/exercising-for-better-sleep
- Why exercise boosts mood and energy https://www.everydayhealth.com/fitness/workouts/boost-your-energy-level-with-exercise.aspx
- Physical exercise as a tool to help the immune system https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/current-guidelines/scientific-report
- NICE Alcohol Use Disorders - https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg115/evidence/full-guideline-136423405
- Exercise as a potential treatment for drug abuse - Evidence from preclinical studies https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3276339/