5 Ways Exercise Is Beneficial to Your Addiction Recovery

There are plenty of studies to back up the fact that exercise is beneficial for physical and mental health. There is also research that indicates it can be a great tool for recovery from substance use disorders. Exercise improves self-esteem and self-confidence; it combats depression, anxiety, stress, and boredom; it is a social activity that can increase your connections and network; and it helps reduce the risk of having a relapse in recovery.

Life in recovery is a completely different world from the one you left when you entered treatment. A successful recovery from substance use disorder is one in which you live a healthy, positive, and satisfying life.

While there are many ways to do this, one important healthy choice to make is to exercise regularly. Being physically active will keep you healthy in mind and body, improve your mood, help bring structure to your days, improve your social network, and above all help prevent relapses.

1. Exercise Reduces the Risk of Relapse in Recovery.

Going through treatment and working hard to get sober is challenging, but it is when you leave treatment that you face life without drugs or alcohol. Many people relapse, often more than once. While it is not uncommon to relapse, the goal of recovery is to avoid it. Relapse doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start over from square one, but it does mean additional treatment and puts you at risk for a dangerous overdose and other consequences.

There are many things you can do in recovery to minimize the chance you’ll relapse. One of these is getting regular physical activity. Studies with lab animals show that when given regular exercise or even just the option to exercise, they will use drugs less often. This is true even for those already addicted.

Smaller human studies also show that exercise can reduce drug or alcohol use. One study involved 38 people who regularly used multiple substances. They all participated in group exercise classes a few times a week for several months. At the end of the study, most of the people were either abstinent or had reduced substance use. Regular activity could help you resist the urge to relapse. Why exercise has this effect is not known exactly, but it could be a positive distraction, the formation of social connections through activities, better physical health, or a combination of factors.

2. Physical Activity Relieves Depression and Anxiety.

Another of those factors may be that exercise improves your mood. When you’re in a better mood you are less likely to turn to drugs or alcohol. There is plenty of evidence that exercise is a mood booster, not just for healthy individuals but also for those with depression and anxiety disorders.

One way that exercise may help you feel better is by the release of endorphins. These are brain chemicals that make you feel good and that improve mood. Endorphins include chemicals that are similar to the cannabinoids found in marijuana. In this way, exercise is like a natural high, one you can achieve without drugs or alcohol.

Exercise is also known to be a good distraction from worries and thoughts about the future. This can also boost your mood. Additionally, exercise improves self-confidence, promotes social interactions, and provides a healthy coping mechanism for bad feelings, all things that combat anxiety and depression.

3. Increase Social Support Through Exercise.

While it’s certainly possible to exercise alone and without ever interacting with anyone else, many types of workouts and physical activities are social. Social support is essential for recovery, especially family and close friends you can rely on to talk, to provide practical assistance, and even to give you a place to live.

But more casual social interactions are important, too, as is growing a stronger overall social network. The more friends you can make who are supportive of your recovery and who provide a positive model for healthy lifestyle choices, the better. Making new social connections through exercise will help you make new friends who make those positive choices and who can influence you in positive ways. A great example is how Stephanie R. made a whole new group of friends when she took up running in recovery:

“I was terrified to take that first step, but when I got to my local running club on a Tuesday night I found a friendly, welcoming group of people. They asked who was new to the group and, brave enough to just barely raise my hand, everyone wanted to say hi and get to know me.”

Joining this group was such a big step for me, because I had just finished three months of residential treatment and was trying to find a new, sober place in the world. I had started exercising in treatment, and my therapists recommended I find classes to take or running groups to join once I got home. So I found this one not far from my house that runs twice a week.”

Six months later I am running several times a week and have an amazing group of new friends. Some of us spend time together outside of organized runs, getting coffee or shopping for new running gear. I even finished my first half marathon and couldn’t feel better about myself.”

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4. Exercise Improves Self-Confidence and Self-Efficacy.

A big part of recovery and avoiding relapse is belief in yourself and the fact that you can persist in staying sober. This is known as self-efficacy. If you believe you can do something, you are more likely to do it. And self-efficacy is not compartmentalized. When you feel good about your ability to do one thing, it helps you feel more confident in doing another, possibly unrelated task.
This means that if you can set goals for fitness or exercise and meet them, you improve your overall self-efficacy and confidence. This in turn will help you feel more confident in your ability to stay sober. Studies bear this out, showing that improved self-efficacy does improve recovery and reduces relapse rates.

Don’t worry about starting small. If you aren’t confident now in your ability to master any athletic goal, start with something simple, like running a mile or scoring a goal in a soccer game with friends. Or, you could set a goal of attending one fitness class per week or lifting a certain amount of weight. The more goals you set and hit, the better you’ll feel about yourself.

5. Create Structure and Routine With Exercise.

A big fear many people have coming out of treatment is figuring out what to do with the endless hours in front of them. Rehab is a structured, safe environment in which it is nearly impossible to relapse. Once you’re out of treatment and on your own, though, you have to fill the hours in your day and make your own structure. Without structure it’s easier to get bored or stressed and to relapse.

There are many ways to structure your days, including work, school, or time with family, but exercise can also play a role. When you have free time to fill outside of these responsibilities, it’s important to fill it with healthy activities. Exercise, especially when you have goals in mind like running a 5k, requires steady, regular commitment. It’s a perfect way to create structure within a day, week, month, and longer.

The benefits of exercise are numerous and undeniable, but for someone in recovery regular physical activity can be a powerful tool to stay healthy and avoid relapse. Try new sports, go to the gym, take up running with friends, join recreational teams, or just take a walk with your family. Anything you can do to exercise and be more active will support your recovery.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.