Running Toward Healing: Exercise Can Play A Critical Role in Addiction Treatment

In 2007, Eminem was struggling. The Vicodin he was addicted to wreaked havoc on his stomach lining, causing him to continuously overeat to prevent pain and irritation. In a recent interview with Men’s Journal, Eminem revealed that a drug overdose finally forced him to take control of his addiction, enter addiction treatment, and make significant lifestyle changes to deal with both his dependence on Vicodin and his weight gain:

When I got out of rehab, I needed to lose weight, but I also needed to figure out a way to function sober. Unless I was blitzed out of my mind, I had trouble sleeping. So I started running. It gave me a natural endorphin high, but it also helped me sleep, so it was perfect.

Running was complemented by home fitness DVDs and gym workouts, creating a combination of aerobic and weight training for complete body conditioning. The drive toward self-destructive substance use was replaced by a new compulsion for the healthy high of endorphin release through physical activity.

Evidence of Healing

Eminem is not alone in discovering the benefits of exercise to heal from addiction. There is compelling scientific evidence that physical movement can have a profound effect on the desire to use drugs and may even offer protective benefits to minimize the damage of drug use. In a 2010 study published in Biological Psychiatry, rats who exercised on a running wheel for 2 hours each day were significantly less likely to seek out cocaine compared to sedentary rats. The researchers hypothesize that this effect was the result of the exercise-induced changes in neurological function, specifically a decrease in pERK levels in the prefrontal cortex. Meanwhile, a study on human subjects published in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health found that drug users who participate in a structured exercise program three times a week developed better body image and self-confidence, increased bodily awareness, and reduced drug use.

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How It Works

Physical fitness provides multiple emotional and behavioral benefits that may explain why it can be a critical part of addiction treatment. One of the reasons may be its positive impact on mood due to biochemical changes in the brain; the release of endorphins produced by strenuous physical activity can alleviate feelings of depression and reduce anxiety, enhancing your ability to regulate your emotions and manage stressors that can trigger substance use. This can be particularly useful for people who suffer from a co-occurring mental health disorder, but the emotionally buoying effects of exercise can benefit virtually everyone. Exercise provides a healthy outlet for negative energy, gives you structured, focused activity to take your mind off your addiction, and can teach you self-control and discipline. By taking control of your body, you may come to find that you are better able to control your addictive impulses, find a sense of purpose, and come to value your physical health.

Incorporating Fitness In Treatment

While exercise alone does not heal addiction, comprehensive addiction treatment centers include physical fitness components as part of a complete recovery program to safely teach you how to incorporate exercise in your recovery. You may see immediate benefits as exercise minimizes withdrawal symptoms, as well as lay the groundwork for an ongoing lifestyle change, as you take what you have learned in treatment and apply it to your ordinary life. Exercise gives you one more tool in the fight against addiction, and can fundamentally reorient your relationship with both your emotional and physical self, empowering your healing and enhancing your well-being.


Alta Mira is a premiere residential addiction treatment center providing outstanding private care. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one start on the road to recovery.