The benefits of regular exercise have been stated in a number of different contexts. It is no secret that Americans have high rates of obesity, which represent poor dietary factors along with lack of regular exercise. It is also important to note that individuals who are recovering from substance use disorders can benefit from regular exercise. Many individuals who have moderate to severe chronic substance use disorders have spent significant amounts of time being inactive. Exercise can stimulate their systems and provide various other benefits.

Anyone considering a new exercise program should consult with a physician before engaging in any form of exercise.

fitness in recovery

There are various broad research reports that suggest there are numerous potential benefits of exercise in the treatment of substance use disorders. The information in this article comes from several different studies, including studies in the journals Frontiers in Psychiatry, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review, Brain Structure and Function, and Mental Health and Physical Activity.

The Benefits of Exercise for Individuals in Recovery

Several specific classes of beneficial effects associated with formal exercise programs have been identified. Certainly, these effects are variable depending on the individual situation, and individuals may realize some of these effects or experience effects that are not listed in this article. Some of the major benefits listed in research studies follow.

  • Exercise can reduce cravings and use of drugs or alcohol. A number of different studies have looked at the effect of specific types of exercise and their effects on individuals with certain types of substance use disorders. In general, the research indicates that as early as two weeks into the exercise program, individuals report significant decreases in their cravings for their drug of choice. As a result, they experience a significant decrease in their use of their drug of choice.
  • A number of different types of exercise have been used in these different studies, such as running, yoga, martial arts like tai chi, a walking program, etc. A number of different substance use disorders have been targets for these interventions, including cannabis use disorder, narcotic use disorder, tobacco use disorder, alcohol use disorder, etc.
  • Exercise facilitates positive emotions. Exercise programs affect emotional health in a number of different ways. Individuals begin to feel better and invigorated, and naturally begin to experience more positive emotions. Engaging in regular exercise results in an individual developing a sense of accomplishment, which also facilitates improvements in a person’s emotional expression and increases self-esteem.

Exercise programs also result in the release of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that were affected by an individual’s drug abuse. These include neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, etc. The use of certain drugs results in a massive release of neurotransmitters. When an individual stops using the drug, there is often a depletion of these neurotransmitters that is associated with feelings of depression, apathy, anxiety, etc. Engaging in regular exercise can help to balance the situation.

  • Exercise can work as a potential coping aid. A potential benefit of exercise is that it becomes a substitute for drugs and alcohol in terms of coping with daily issues of life. Individuals use their exercise time to escape from the pressures of living. In addition, one of the biggest triggers to relapse for recovering individuals is stress. Exercise programs have been empirically demonstrated to result in significant stress reduction in individuals who engage in them. Thus, exercise programs can act as a coping mechanism for specific issues as well as a coping mechanism for general forms of stress, including stress associated with attempting to adhere to one’s recovery program.
  • A formal exercise program can help one to deal with change. Individuals in the early stages of recovery are faced with the challenge of giving up a number of well-established habits, beloved acquaintances, and activities they enjoy, even if they were contributing to their self-destruction. Engagement in a formal program of exercise with specific goals can help individuals replace these feelings of loss and emptiness. People can learn to substitute old goals and expectations with new ones.
  • Regular exercise programs lead to structure, discipline, and routine. Individuals in the early stages of recovery need to establish good habits. Engaging in a formal program of regular exercise assists individuals in establishing a routine.
  • Regular exercise may reduce the effect of some drugs. Animal models investigating the effects of exercise on addictive behaviors suggest that regular exercise programs may result in diminished psychoactive effects of certain types of drugs. For example, rodents that were placed on regimens of exercise on a running wheel were found to be less susceptible to the effects of several different types of drugs, including morphine and amphetamines. Of course, animal research does not always translate well to research with humans; however, there is also evidence to suggest that some individuals experience a diminished quality of the psychoactive effects of drugs when they are placed on regular exercise programs.
  • Exercise can facilitate tissue damage repair. Research using animals and observations of humans suggest that regular exercise programs may facilitate tissue repair in the damaged organs of individuals who have chronically used drugs. For example, rodents who were chronically exposed to methamphetamine and placed on regular exercise programs displayed less neurological damage than rodents not placed on regular exercise programs. Observational studies of individuals in recovery indicate that those who engage in light exercise programs during recovery regain their cognitive faculties at a faster rate than individuals who do not exercise during recovery.
  • Regular exercise can result in cognitive improvements. The benefits of exercise on cognition (thinking abilities) are well documented. Engaging in a formal exercise program can help individuals in recovery to think more clearly, reason more clearly, and help with issues regarding memory and attention.
  • Exercise can affect self-esteem. Engaging in a regular exercise program can increase an individual’s confidence and result in a boost in self-esteem. This can be particularly useful in individuals in recovery who struggle with issues regarding self-worth and usefulness. It can also alleviate issues of embarrassment and guilt.
  • Regular exercise increases quality of rest. Individuals in recovery often have issues regarding sleep that can be due to emotional or physiological issues, such as the imbalance of neurotransmitters. Engaging in a regular exercise program can facilitate sleep and the ability to rest.

General Effects

Some other general effects gleaned from the research on exercise in recovering individuals indicate the following:

  • Nearly any amount of physical exercise can produce benefits.
  • Early exposure to exercise programs in recovery produces long-term effects in individuals.
  • The therapeutic effects of exercise occur in individuals of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, levels of education, and genders.
  • As an individual’s fitness improves, they display subsequent improvements in their outlook, mental health, and overall well being.

What Type of Exercise Is Best?

What Type of Exercise Is Best?

A number of studies use different forms of exercise that are quite varied. There are claims that certain forms of exercise are better for recovering addicts than other forms. In actuality, the particular type of exercise program an individual chooses should be suited toward their specific situation. For example, individuals with bad knees would most likely not benefit significantly from a long-distance running program. It is important to choose a form of exercise that one can perform on a regular basis and that one enjoys. Forcing oneself to engage in an activity that isn’t enjoyable will most likely not produce beneficial effects.

The range of potential exercise programs is quite broad and can include walking programs, bicycling, yoga, martial arts, weight training, swimming, etc. The most important aspect of an exercise program for an individual in recovery is to choose a form of exercise that will be beneficial (will not harm the individual) and will be an activity that the individual enjoys doing. Individuals who develop exercise programs that involve socializing with friends and family members may also find that they enjoy these programs better.