While it is generally recognized that it is not enough to aid recovery on its own, addiction specialists have known for decades that exercise has positive effects on substance use disorders. Today, virtually all drug rehab centers, regardless of their specific approaches, use some form of exercise as part of their programs.
Only in the past few years has there been a better understanding of the mechanisms behind these effects and the actual extent of these benefits.
Here are just a few of the ways exercise can help people going through an addiction recovery.
1. Exercise strengthens the immune system
Many commonly abused substances such as opioids and alcohol have a direct negative effect on the immune system. People who live with substance use disorders may also stop monitoring their health. With a weakened immune system, a recovering person can get sick more often, which can ruin their motivation and focus on recovery.
Moderate exercise has been shown to boost the immune system, which is always good, but is especially beneficial for those recovering from a substance use disorder.
2. Improved sleep patterns
Regular exercise has been shown to help regulate sleep patterns. It can be crucial for those with sleep disorders associated with drug and alcohol withdrawal. More and better sleep quality is a particularly important point as many people abuse substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines and opioids in order to be able to sleep better.
3. Relieves depression and anxiety symptoms
Whether as a cause or effect of drug use, depression and anxiety are very common in people with substance use disorders. These effects are particularly acute early in the recovery process. While this is usually not enough to treat these disorders on their own, they can complement conventional therapy and help reduce the need for medication for symptoms.
4. Reduces the risk of relapse
Several studies already support the idea that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of relapse. Some studies even give success rates in excess of 90%, provided that the recovering person can maintain their level of exercise.
One reason for this is the previous point. Exercise releases and normalizes hormones such as endorphin, serotonin, and dopamine in the body. This helps regulate mood and control symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another likely reason is that regular exercise can restructure the brain's reward pathways so that the brain is less reliant on drugs to feel normal.
5. Reduces stress
Many people with substance use disorders turn to drugs in response to stress. Unfortunately, this is largely unsustainable and can result in all sorts of harmful physical and mental effects. Fortunately, regular exercise can also help reduce stress levels. Exercise reduces cortisol and adrenaline levels and releases mood-enhancing endorphins, resulting in relaxation and less need for medication.
6. It can reduce the need for psychotropic drugs
Exercise not only helps reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol, it can also reduce the need for medications that are needed to control mood disorders that are common in people's recovery. Reducing the need for anxiolytics and antidepressants can be particularly important for addiction recovery, as many of these drugs can also be prone to abuse.
7. It can help build trust
People with substance use disorders can have body image problems, either as a result or a direct cause of drug use. Being in shape can be a great way to improve self-confidence, which can be damaged by drug use. This new-found confidence can help motivate those recovering to adhere to other important therapies while they are recovering.
Exercise alone is insufficient, but it has strong synergies with conventional addiction recovery approaches such as counseling and therapy. Because of this, the vast majority of popular and alternative drug and alcohol rehab programs will recommend some form of exercise to complement their approaches.
Given the strong evidence, it would be good to recover people who have had problems with other methods of staying clean, to try moderate exercise to combat food cravings.
* collaborative contribution