Building Your Strength: The Surprising Role of Exercise in Overcoming Addiction

For most of your adult life you’ve been searching for the highest high you can find. You’ve tried everything…everything, that provided you with an escape from your depression and anxiety. You worked your way up the narcotics ladder and overdosed more times than you care to remember, but you do remember the last time. You’re still recovering.

As you prepare to enter rehab, you’re worried that you’ll never feel as high as you did when you were using: what does a life without drugs feel like? You’ve looked online to see what you can expect while in treatment. You notice that you’ll be doing some type of exercise almost every day. You know it’s good for you–you hear it every day from a variety of media sources–but you’re not quite sure how it can help in overcoming your addiction.



Addiction and Co-occurring Mental Health Disorders

It’s not uncommon for people who have problems with addiction to have other mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, that are linked to their addiction either directly or indirectly. These additional mental health problems are called co-occurring disorders or dual diagnoses. While in treatment, it is important to provide therapy for your addiction and for any other mental health problems that are co-occurring, to ensure that all potential causes of your addiction have been addressed. The most prevalent disorders associated with addiction are mood and anxiety disorders. A potential cause of these disorders is the disruption of a chemical produced by the brain called serotonin.

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Serotonin: the Mood Changer

Serotonin transfers information between parts of the brain and plays a role in regulating mood and various other psychological and body functions. If the mechanisms involved with serotonin production and transfer are compromised, researchers believe that it can lead to mood and anxiety disorders. Therefore, regulating serotonin levels is an important treatment for these disorders. The traditional treatment for depression and anxiety is a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors; however, exercise has also shown promise in regulating serotonin levels in the body.

Want to Increase Serotonin? Exercise.

The direct relationship between serotonin and exercise is not clearly understood, because it is not possible to directly measure serotonin activity in the brain. However, researchers are able to measure serotonin levels in the blood. Using this technique, they were able to show that serotonin produced by exercise plays a role in decreasing depression. The exact mechanism is not entirely clear, but the accumulating research suggests that during exercise an important chemical in the production of serotonin, called tryptophan, is produced; the increase of tryptophan may trigger an increase in serotonin activity during and after exercise.

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Endorphins: Nature’s High

Other chemicals produced by your brain during exercise that can make you feel good are endorphins. These chemicals act in the same way as painkillers and sedatives by blocking pain receptors in the brain, and produce a high similar to heroin or morphine without the addiction or dependence; therefore, exercise can be a helpful addition to a therapy program for patients suffering from opioid addiction. It can replace your destructive high with a healthy one.

Putting it Together

While in treatment, exercise will be an important part of your daily routine. Exercising on a regular basis will help you maintain healthy serotonin levels that will aid in controlling any co-occurring mood or anxiety disorders. It will also provide you with a daily dose of endorphins that will take the edge off your withdrawal and provide you with a natural boost; not to mention the plethora of other health benefits you will receive from regular exercise. Adhering to your exercise program after treatment will provide you with a powerful tool for regulating your emotions and a way to feel a sense of well-being without drugs.

What to Expect

At Alta Mira, we recognize the important role exercise plays in recovery. Both our 30- and 90-day programs offer a wide variety of exercise: Yoga in the morning, gym workouts three times a week in the afternoons, and experiential activities (hiking, kayaking, nature walks or equine-assisted therapy) two times a week. It might sound like a lot of physical activity, but your exercise programs will be tailored to your level of experience, fitness, and any health concerns you may have. Exercise will be an important part of your recovery. Embrace it and all the other therapies you will be exposed to during your stay. This is your chance to make changes in your life that will help you–both mentally and physically–long after you have left Alta Mira.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive residential treatment for drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. 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 recovery.