While it’s generally agreed that it isn’t enough to help recovery on its own, addiction specialists have known for decades that exercise has beneficial effects on substance use disorders. Today, virtually all drug rehabilitation centers use some form of exercise as part of their programs, regardless of their specific approaches.
However, it’s only in recent years that a better understanding of the mechanisms behind those effects and the true extent of these benefits have emerged.
Here are just some of the ways exercise can benefit people going through addiction recovery.
1. Exercise Boosts The Immune System
Many commonly-misused substances, such as opioids, and alcohol, have a direct negative effect on the immune system. People living with substance use disorders may also stop keeping tabs on their health. With a depleted immune system, a recovering individual can become sick more often, which can ruin their motivation and focus on recovery.
Moderate exercise has been proven to boost the immune system, which, while always a good thing, is especially beneficial for individuals recovering from a substance use disorder.
2. Improved Sleep Patterns
Regular exercise has been shown to help regulate sleep patterns. It may be crucial for addiction recovery individuals with sleep disorders associated with drug and alcohol withdrawal. Getting more and better quality sleep is an especially important point, as many people start misusing substances such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids in an effort to sleep better.
3. Alleviates Depression And Anxiety Symptoms
Whether as a cause or effect of drug use, depression and anxiety are very common among people with substance use disorders. These effects are especially acute early in the recovery process. While not usually sufficient to treat these disorders on their own, they can help supplement conventional therapy and help make the individual less reliant on medication for their symptoms.
4. Reduces The Risk Of Relapse
Several studies already support the idea that regular exercise can greatly reduce the risk of relapse. Some studies even state success rates over 90%, providing the recovering individuals can maintain their exercise levels.
One reason this happens goes back to the previous point. Exercise releases and normalizes levels of hormones such as endorphin, serotonin, and dopamine in the body, which helps regulate mood and helps control depression and anxiety symptoms. Another likely reason is that regular exercise may restructure the brain’s reward pathways so that the brain becomes less reliant on drugs to feel normal.
5. Reduces Stress
Many people with substance use disorders turn to drugs as a response to stress. Unfortunately, this is largely unsustainable and can lead to all kinds of harmful physical and mental effects. Thankfully, moderate regular exercise can work just as well for stress reduction. Exercise reduces the levels of cortisol and adrenaline and releases mood-elevating endorphins, resulting in relaxation and a reduced need to take drugs.
6. It Can Reduce The Need For Psychiatric Medication
Not only will exercise help reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol, but it can also reduce the need for medication needed to control mood disorders common in recovering individuals. Reducing the need for anxiolytics and antidepressants can be especially important for addiction recovery, as many of these medications can be prone to misuse as well.
7. It May Help Build Confidence
People with substance use disorders may have body image issues, either as a result or a direct cause of drug use. Being in shape can be a good way to improve self-confidence, which can be damaged as a result of drug use. This new-found confidence can help motivate recovering individuals to stick with other crucial therapy during recovery.
While insufficient on its own, exercise has a powerful synergy with conventional addiction recovery approaches such as counseling and therapy. For this reason, the vast majority of mainstream and alternative drug and alcohol rehab programs will recommend some form of exercise to complement their approaches.
Given the strong evidence, recovering individuals who have had problems with other methods for staying clean would do well to try moderate exercise as a way to stave off cravings.