Exercise is now an integral part of many addiction recovery programs. This may include mind-body exercise like yoga or tai chi, more intense physical activity like weightlifting—or outdoor sports, which is somewhere in the middle. In a similar vein, many therapists are now incorporating exercise into their treatment for substance use issues and other mental health issues. It seems like we are always seeing new studies about how exercise can improve your mental health and help you stay sober, so a lot of people get the idea that maybe exercise is all they need. Can you really exercise your way out of addiction?
First of all, it’s clear that exercise does support recovery and that addiction treatment programs know what they’re doing when they make physical activity an integral part of treatment. Several animal studies and a few small studies in humans have found that exercise can help reduce the risk of relapse. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20529968] In this case, the animal studies may be more compelling, since rats rarely respond to therapy. There are three primary ways exercise supports recovery.
Addiction can take a terrible toll on your health, leading to a range of problems including malnutrition, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and infections. Exercise can help offset many of these risks, especially cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
While the physical health benefits are certainly nice, the mental health benefits of exercise likely contribute more to a prolonged recovery. Exercise increases levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, as well as dopamine, endorphins, and BDNF, a hormone that actually grows neurons in certain areas of the brain. Exercise can improve your mood within minutes and regular exercise can actually create structural changes in your brain, such as thickening the prefrontal cortex, which helps improve your self-control and emotional regulation. Exercise also improves your sleep, which has both mental and physical benefits.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of exercise—and the one responsible for many of the other benefits—is that it makes you less reactive to stress. Chronic stress obviously increases anxiety, but it also disrupts your sleep, increases your levels of hormones such as cortisol that can damage your cardiovascular health, and increases inflammation, which has been linked with depression. Researchers believe that among the benefits noted above, regular exercise affects the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal, or HPA, axis, making you less vulnerable to stress and also less vulnerable to depression and anxiety—two challenges that commonly go along with substance use disorders. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/]
The benefits outlined above certainly tip the odds in your favor. Since most people cite stress as their biggest trigger of craving, anything that makes you feel less anxious or overwhelmed is certainly going to help you stay sober. The same is true for depression and other mental health challenges. However, there’s much more to recovery than turning down the volume on challenging emotions.
While exercise is one lifestyle change that broadly supports sobriety, it’s certainly not a silver bullet. You won’t magically stay sober just by running 30 minutes a day. There are many skills specific to recovery. You have to know your triggers, learn to tolerate discomfort, devise behavioral strategies to avoid temptation and deal with peer pressure, learn to regulate your emotions, learn healthy strategies for managing and coping with stress, and other things that exercise alone won’t teach you.
One way to think of it is if you’re training for a sport—say, boxing. Obviously, a boxer has to be in good physical shape, which means running, push ups, weights, jumping rope, and so on, but no matter how fit they are, they won’t necessarily get better at boxing unless they actually train for boxing. It’s a high-skill activity that requires technique, timing, and knowing how to handle getting punched in the face. Similarly, in addiction recovery, you need both specific skills and lifestyle changes.
Most people recovering from addiction will have co-occurring mental health issues, such as an anxiety disorder, major depression, PTSD, ADHD, a personality disorder, or others. As discussed above, exercise can help with these issues, but exercise alone is typically not enough. Some mental health issues require medication and most require some kind of specific therapeutic intervention. No matter how much you run, for example, you’re not likely to process your trauma or overcome your intense fear of social situations. That typically requires therapy. Exercise can improve your mood, but it often doesn’t change your thinking or behavior.
Finally, it’s important to remember that social support is one of the keys to a strong recovery. Exercise can certainly be social. In fact, studies have shown that team sports and other forms of group exercise are the best overall for improving mental health, both because they improve consistency through accountability and because they add a socializing aspect to exercise. While this is certainly good, the people you play basketball with every Saturday probably have no idea what it’s like to struggle with addiction. Any social connection with positive, supportive people is a good thing, but for the purposes of recovery, it’s especially important to have a group of friends who know what you’re going through.
Exercise is one lifestyle change that should be part of every recovery program. There are mountains of evidence that it improves mental and physical health and improves recovery outcomes. However, exercise in itself is typically not enough to keep you sober. Addiction is caused by many factors and a comprehensive treatment plan needs to recognize the specific factors relevant to you. At Enlightened Solutions, we know there is no one-size-fits-all in addiction recovery. We incorporate exercise and other activities into our individualized and holistic treatment programs. For more information, call us today at 833-801-LIVE or explore our website.
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