Why exercise is the best way to recover from an addiction

In the U.S., at least 21 million people suffer from alcohol and drug addiction every year. Sadly, not many people are aware that substance abuse can be addressed like other chronic conditions such as depression, diabetes, or hypertension. The answer? Regular physical activity.

Addiction, exercise, and your mental health

Data confirms that both addiction and other health problems can be treated via a comprehensive approach that combines medication and therapy with other important factors of a healthy recovery lifestyle, like a proper diet and regular exercise.

The clinical term for addiction is “substance use disorder.” If left untreated, addiction can ruin a person’s life. You don’t need to look further than regular reports of overdose deaths caused by an opiate epidemic for proof that addiction is an ongoing problem in the country.

These days, most inpatient rehab facilities regularly incorporate exercise into their treatment programs. This change is due to the many benefits that physical activity offers for recovery, which includes reduced cravings, enhanced mood, and increased self-confidence. These benefits can help a person recovering from addiction wean themselves off of alcohol or drugs.

Reducing cravings and substance abuse with exercise

Cravings, defined as “the mental and physical urges and compulsions to drink or use drugs,” are a major indicator of addiction. Cravings are strongest in a person’s first couple months of abstinence. In time, cravings will recede in intensity the longer an individual remains sober.

Several studies have determined that physical activity can help reduce these cravings, together with the substance abuse that caused them, at the beginning of the recovery process.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse conducted two earlier independent experiments at the University of Minnesota and the University of Virginia with cocaine-addicted rat models. The results of the studies revealed that making the rats run on an exercise wheel is linked to “less cocaine-seeking behavior.”

In a separate 2011 study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers discovered that regular physical exercise helped minimize drug use in people addicted to amphetamine, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

These studies suggest that exercise can successfully curb both cravings and substance abuse. It is possible that physical activity can lower the levels of a protein in the brain that is linked to drug cravings.

Another reason for this benefit is exercise releases “feel-good” endorphins. These neurochemicals, which have effects that are similar to drinking or using drugs, give you a natural “high.”

Endorphins are made up of a large group of peptides and they act on the opiate receptors in your brain. They can reduce pain and boost pleasure, which is why you feel good after exercising. While endorphins are released in response to pain or stress, they are also released during other activities, like exercise or sex.

Improving your mood with exercise

Exercise can boost your mood, which is good news for people who have clinical depression. When a person with addiction experiences “the blues” in early recovery, the occurrence is called a “relapse trigger.”

A lot of individuals in early recovery go through different degrees of depression because the levels of feel-good neurotransmitters in their brain, such as dopamine, GABA, glutamate, and serotonin, are depleted. Addiction is directly responsible for the loss of these essential receptors.

“Dual diagnoses,” like major depression and other mood disorders, may occur alongside addiction. These can affect many individuals recovering from addiction, and most of the time, these conditions are often the root of a substance abuse habit.

Studies imply that vigorous physical activity can help boost the production of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, which can improve your mood and ease the symptoms of depression. Through these methods, exercise gives people in recovery an important buffer from relapse while also allowing them to replenish these feel-good neurotransmitters. (Related: Six reasons why walking is the best medicine for mental health.)

Boosting self-confidence with exercise

A person struggling with addiction may have low self-esteem, which can negatively affect their attempts to recover. This makes self-confidence an important factor to consider in recovery.

Data from studies reveal that exercise can help in this regard. In a 2009 study conducted by researchers from the Medical College of Georgia20 to 40 minutes of daily physical activity helped reduce symptoms of depression and increased self-esteem in overweight children.

The important thing is, the confidence boost you get from exercise isn’t tied to your speed or endurance. According to the results of a 2009 study by scientists from the University of Florida, a growing sense of self-confidence can be achieved by exercising regularly. This means that the regular act of exercising, and not the quality of your performance, may help boost your self-esteem.

If you are in recovery from substance abuse, exercise regularly to manage your cravings, improve your state of mind, and boost your self-confidence.

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