Active Recovery: The Science Behind How Exercise Helps in Addiction Treatment

Staying active is a part of a healthy lifestyle for most people.

Regular exercise not only keeps your bones, muscles, lungs, and heart strong, but it also keeps your mind sharp. It’s why you feel joyful after a morning run, or even a bit calmer after a good workout.

Decades of research is proof that these physical, mental, and emotional health are real. And now more and more experts believe if you’re recovering from addiction, exercise can work in unique ways for you, too.

The Science Behind How Exercise Helps in Substance Abuse Recovery

Doctor Examines X-Ray

The Science Behind How Exercise Helps in Substance Abuse Recovery

As it turns out, treating addiction with exercise is more than just a “feel good” distraction—there’s actual science behind it.

In animal studies, scientists found regular swimming reduced voluntary morphine consumption in rats addicted to opioids. In a similar study, having access to an exercise wheel reduced self-administration of drugs in rats dependent on cocaine.

In humans, the data is also promising. In one observational study, researchers noted an “inverse” relationship between exercise and substance abuse and addiction. This means those who exercised frequently were less likely to use or abuse drugs, and those who abused drugs were less likely to exercise.

Researchers believe there could be several reasons to explain this relationship:

  • Exercise is an alternative to using drugs. In other words, if you’re busy staying active, you have less time to experiment with alcohol, opioids, and other substances.
  • Exercise may help prevent the brain from developing the disease of addiction. The study suggests exercise may produce “functional neuroadaptations” that could decrease your susceptibility to developing substance abuse disorder.
  • Using drugs decreases your ability to stay active. Addiction is costly in more ways than one. When you use or abuse drugs, you spend time and money on substances rather than activities that keep your body strong. Additionally, drugs like opioids have devastating effects on your health, limiting your ability to run, lift, or engage in aerobic or strength-related activities.

Early research suggests exercise’s inverse relationship with substance abuse has a protective effect in the brain. In a small study of 38 people who misused opioids, amphetamines, cocaine, and other substances, those who agreed to take part in regular exercise reported abstinence or decreased drug use a year later.

How Exercise Can Help You in Sobriety

If you’re currently in recovery, exercise can be yet another tool in staying sober. Along with talk therapy, support from loved ones, and other resources, exercising has other benefits that may keep you on the road to recovery. Some of these benefits include:

  • Reducing Stress – If stress, anxiety, or depression is at the core of your addiction, you may be left with overwhelming emotions as you wean yourself from drug use. Exercise is proven to help manage stress and help you cope with mental health disorders like anxiety and depression.
  • Improved Sleep – As you heal, you may suffer from extremes in sleep. It’s possible you’re struggling with insomnia or finding it difficult to get out of bed among intense fatigue. Exercise can help regulate your circadian rhythm, which is your body’s natural system for winding down for sleep and waking up in the morning.
  • Increases Energy – Recovery is exhausting. And as backwards as it may seem, physical activity may be just what you need to increase your energy. As you expend energy through walking, biking, or another form of exercise, you’ll receive some back in return.
  • Better Mood – Exercise releases endorphins, which are feel-good hormones that cause feelings of happiness, calm, and contentment. Just 30 minutes of activity a day can naturally trigger endorphin production, boosting your mood and calming your mind in the process.

How to Start Exercising

When you’re in recovery, exercise may feel “easier said than done”.

But you don’t have to throw yourself into a strenuous, daily workout routine to reap the benefits. The key is to start small and work your way up from there.

Some suggestions for exercising during addiction recovery are:






Lifting Weights

Exercise Classes

School Sports

Select an activity you enjoy. This will ensure you can stick to it and maintain exercise long-term. Start with just 10 minutes per day. Eventually you’ll find you can exercise for longer as your mind and body become stronger.

If you’re enrolled in a treatment facility, it may offer programs in which you can get active with others in recovery. If you sign up for a sport program or class, you may also find it helps to inform someone you trust that the activity is a part of your sobriety. This way, your coach, teammate, or trusted friend can help support you and hold you accountable.

Talk to your doctor.

Always remember to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise routine. If you have health issues—whether related or unrelated to substance abuse—it’s important to clear your activity with a medical professional before getting started.

About GameChanger

Created in 2018, GameChanger is a student-powered movement with focus on substance misuse prevention among youths. We connect students, educators, and communities with education, training, coaching, and support services to prevent opioid and other drug use before it starts.

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