Many people know from experience that exercise makes them feel good. In this article, I’m going to focus on how exercise can help people recover from addiction.
After I finally conquered alcohol addiction, lifting weights and outdoor cardio helped me get my life together.
Exercise combined with nutritional supplements and herbal remedies for anxiety and depression helped make my life feel livable again.
There are risks associated with any kind of exercise, but in my experience the pros far outweigh the cons.
Withdrawal and Post-Acute Withdrawal
During the withdrawal period, exercise improves mood and helps combat anxiety and insomnia. This is why it’s an effective home remedy for withdrawals. The Thomas Recipe, a popular method for opiate users to detox at home, incorporates exercise to help treat anxiety and restless leg syndrome.
Just 10-15 minutes on the treadmill each morning helped me feel human again in my early days of quitting alcohol.
I was still taking benzodiazepines to detox, but I remember thinking that my morning workout allowed me to talk to people without feeling jittery. I also found that I fell asleep more easily at night when I started slowly ramping up the intensity of my workouts.
Post-acute withdrawal (PAWS) can last up to a year and often involves anxiety, depression and insomnia. These are symptoms of brain imbalances that are caused by addiction. Ironically, they are often the reasons that people go back to drugs or alcohol.
Because exercise produces feel-good chemicals and aids brain repair, it can be very useful in mitigating these symptoms.
The Brain Benefits of Exercise
Dependence on opiates, alcohol and other drugs causes the brain to gradually stop producing important neurotransmitters. Starting a workout routine unleashes a cascade of these crucial brain chemicals.
Here are a few exciting brain benefits that can be enjoyed by working out:
Endorphins: Exercise releases painkilling and euphoria-inducing neurochemicals called endorphins, which can make you feel good for several hours following a workout. Low levels of endorphins can be genetic and are associated with feeling sad, sluggish, or disinterested in everyday activities.
Releasing endorphins through exercise can help people shrug off setbacks and even overcome serious trauma.
Serotonin: Aerobic exercise in particular has been shown to increase production of serotonin, which is important for healthy sleep and relaxation. Working out sends a stream of amino acids into the muscles, except for tryptophan, which makes its way to the brain and serves as a precursor of serotonin.
Oxygen is also necessary for serotonin production, which may explain why cardio helps the brain produce more of this brain chemical.
Dopamine: This feel-good chemical is involved in pleasure, reward, and motivation. Working out stimulates dopamine production in much the same way as drugs and alcohol, without all of the negative side effects!
Since dopamine affects learning and motivation, it helps the brain anticipate workouts as an alternative reward to addictive substances.
Norepinephrine: Exercise increases levels of this neurotransmitter, which is produced in response to stress and regulates other neurotransmitters that directly inhibit stress. In this way, exercise allows the body to “practice” communication between its stress response systems.
When our brain, adrenals, heart, and other organs involved in stress response are fine-tuned by exercise, we are less likely to overreact to everyday stressors.
BDNF: Working out releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps the brain produce new neurons and repair existing ones.
This is a relatively recent discovery that was a missing piece of the puzzle for scientists who long suspected that exercise “rewires” the brain, but couldn’t pinpoint the exact mechanism.
While the factors above explain the majority of the brain benefits of exercise, there are many other neurotransmitters that are affected positively by working out. Research shows that GABA, which is necessary for feelings of relaxation, is released by working out – as is oxytocin, the trust and bonding hormone.
As you can see, exercise helps the brain to produce some very important chemicals. Over time, these benefits become even more pronounced, as exercise helps the brain to forge new pathways and repair itself through a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.
Research on Exercise and Addiction
Many recent studies have found a strong correlation between exercise and mental health.
A few have even begun to demonstrate the specific benefits for people with addictions:
- In a Vanderbilt University study, a group of heavily dependent marijuana users voluntarily cut their use by over 50% just weeks after being introduced to an exercise program.
- Research by Front Psychiatry found that more exercise correlates with a lower risk of substance addiction. It advises the creation of exercise-based interventions for addiction, based on evidence that exercise can help people cut down or quit using drugs and alcohol.
While more studies are needed to demonstrate the benefits of exercise for people with addictions, a lot of recent research points to exercise as a potent brain healer:
- Exercise and meditation together, done twice per week for 2 months, reduced symptoms of depression by 40% for a group of students. (source)
- Aerobic exercise reduces emotional difficulties in people by changing the way they respond to their emotions. (source)
- Young people with psychotic symptoms who exercised for 10 weeks had a 27% reduction of these symptoms. (source)
- Four hours of exercise per week was found to activate genes that produce neurotrophic factors that increase brain cells and grow connections between neurons. (source)
- In mice with genetic serotonin deficits, vigorous wheel-running returned their serotonin levels to normal levels. (source)
Excessive alcohol and drug use are known to cause premature aging and even increase the risk of cancer. A recent study found that exercise can reverse aging and cell damage that leads to dementia. Yet another study found that 50% of cancer deaths could be prevented by healthy lifestyle changes that include exercise.
All of this is great news for anyone who wants to incorporate exercise as part of a holistic strategy to recover from addiction.
The Mind-Body Connection
Our bodies are very complex, and exercise causes a number of physiological chain reactions that affect our level of well-being. Research might never totally illuminate the mind-body connection, the benefits of which have to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
With that said, there are a few phenomena that can help explain the importance of the mind-body connection, especially in the context of recovering from addiction.
Hormesis refers to stress that causes our systems to become stronger.
Unlike sitting for prolonged periods or inhaling toxins, exercise is an example of hormetic stress that we evolved to experience.
When I began lifting weights regularly after quitting alcohol, I noticed that my bones became denser, my muscles got stronger, and even my mood became more resilient.
Hormonal balance is another important aspect of the mind-body connection.
Addictive substances can wreak havoc on testosterone levels, making both men and women depressed. Exercise and a diet high in healthy fats can restore the production of sex hormones that drastically enhance our sense of well-being.
Last but not least, improving fitness level and body composition is a great way to build self-esteem. Higher self-esteem makes us less likely to revert to destructive patterns of behavior.
Unlike the vicious cycle of addiction, exercise is a virtuous cycle that unifies the mind and body.
What Types of Exercise Work Best?
As a personal trainer by day, I’ll be the first to admit that my intense workout routines aren’t the only ways to get fit. The best strategy is to pick a form of exercise that you enjoy and that brings you closer to your personal goals.
My goal after quitting alcohol was to become as strong and lean as possible.
I wanted my physique to be a symbol of my victory over addiction.
I chose to lift weights, run sprints, and spend time relearning martial arts that I’d neglected during my drinking years.
It’s a great idea to try out new kinds of exercise and mix sessions with adventure and wanderlust. Rock climbing, paddle boarding, water skiing, and yoga are just a few activities that I’ve been able to enjoy since I quit drinking.
It’s also a good idea to have at least one workout buddy. Exercising with other people increases oxytocin levels, helping everyone get more out of the workout.
Furthermore, if you’re lifting weights, there are certain exercises (like bench press) that require a spotter beyond a certain weight.
What Are The Risks of Exercise?
The most obvious risk of starting an exercise program is physical injury. With weightlifting, it’s important to learn proper form before trying to get stronger. Running and endurance sports can lead to wear-and-tear injuries in the knees and hips.
After suffering from shin splints due to running on concrete, I began alternating walking with sprinting. The pain in my shins have never returned, and I’ve gotten faster and stronger from increasing the intensity (instead of the duration) of my workouts.
Exercise addiction is another risk that happens most often with endurance training.
The endorphin high can be addictive, and tolerance to exercise builds over time. However, many people who have helped quit near-fatal addictions with the help of exercise see their mild exercise dependence a worthy trade-off.
It’s very important to replenish nutrients that are lost through exercise.
It’s true that exercise helps the body make better use of nutrients and produces many life-enhancing compounds in response to working out. But if the building blocks of these compounds are not restored through diet and/or supplementation, burn-out and fatigue can result.
A healthy diet filled with animal protein, good saturated fats like coconut oil, and plenty of vegetables is necessary to recover from workouts.
I’ve found that a multivitamin, magnesium, and omega-3 fish oil go a long way in helping me to feel my best in and out of the gym.
Conclusion: Get Moving Today!
Beginning a new workout routine can be intimidating, especially if you’re still dealing with the symptoms of protracted withdrawal. If you show up and exercise for as long as you can instead of forcing yourself to conform to arbitrary workout routines, you will gradually build strength and endurance over time.
Your workouts can soon become a source of pleasure and stress relief that you look forward to doing.