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The Science of Exercise and Addiction Recovery

For someone who is in recovery from addiction, staying on the right track is easier when you have a complete mind-body approach to well being. Physical fitness has great effects on your overall health, and incorporating other alternative coping methods, such as meditation and yoga, along with exercise, can be an integral part of your road to recovery.

Multiple studies have shown that exercise helps with preventing and treating addiction. CNN reports on one animal study in which laboratory rats that had exercise wheels were less likely to self-administer cocaine than the rats who did not have wheels in their cages. Other studies have found similar results, and the ways in which exercise benefits recovery are numerous:

  • Humans are wired to depend on habits and routines. Abusing drugs or alcohol becomes an unhealthy routine, but physical fitness replaces that with a healthy habit while fulfilling our need for routine.
  • Regular exercise has physiological benefits that help prevent relapse. Exercise increases dopamine, a chemical in the brain that makes us feel good. Depression and anxiety are commonly associated with addiction and recovery, but the “natural high” from exercise combats these feelings and reduces stress and anxiety.
  • The satisfaction of doing something that’s good for you, and succeeding at a physical challenge, gives you a boost of confidence.

To make sure you stick with an exercise routine, it’s important to find an activity you enjoy, and keep in mind that different types of activity also have different benefits:

  • Endurance activities like running and swimming combine the physiological benefits of aerobic exercise (like increased dopamine) with the meditative effects of repetitive motion. Running gives you an increased sense of being in control, clearer thinking, and higher self-esteem. Endurance exercise also helps you take a “one day at a time” approach to both activity and recovery. In Outdoor Swimmer, recovering alcoholic Paul Parrish describes how attempting a distance swim in the same way he approaches addiction and quitting drinking. Both of these feats may seem impossible if you only look at the end goal, but by taking it a day at a time, or a lap at a time, reaching your goal becomes manageable.
  • Team sports give you the benefits of physical fitness along with a social network that provides accountability and support in your wellness goals. If you lost friends over the course of struggling with addiction, developing new friendships through physical fitness can fill that void.
  • Yoga is a physical activity that promotes both physical strength and mental well being. Power yoga gets your heart rate going, while a more restorative yoga practice encourages mindfulness, which relieves stress and helps prevent a relapse. Mindfulness has been shown to have a powerful impact on an approach to addiction treatment because it helps you become aware of thoughts and feelings without judgment. At The Huffington Post, clinical psychologist Dr. Sarah Bowen explains how mindfulness helps those who are in recovery change their response to negative emotions. So instead of having an automatic tendency to reach for substances when something is upsetting, the person is able to choose a different response. Restorative yoga is a great way to practice mindfulness and meditation because focusing on the movements and your breath encourages you to be present in the moment. Yoga is something you can easily do at home, and if you need a dedicated workout companion you can even incorporate your dog into your practice with dog yoga. Dog yoga is a fantastic trend that combines the therapeutic benefits we get from animals with the benefits of yoga, thereby strengthening your relationship with your dog and promoting relaxation for you both.

All of these benefits – aerobic activity, strength, endurance, and meditation – are equal parts of a holistic mind-body approach to well being. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy and will stick with long term. No matter what you choose, physical fitness combined with meditation can be a key part of your recovery process and help you move forward stronger than ever while preventing relapse.

Do any of those benefits of a physical fitness routine sound familiar? Share your experiences with us below!


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1 Comment

  1. Meal Planning Can Help Facilitate Addiction Recovery | Plan to Eat

    July 28, 2020 at 7:25 pm

    […] Exercise is one of the most powerful tools at an addict’s disposal. Daily exercise — even mild activity — supports overall physical and mental health. First, it provides structure for a person’s day. Whether you wake up every morning for a run or plan on hitting the gym after work, it gives you an opportunity to care for yourself, and in the end, you have a reason to shower. Having something that takes up time in your schedule like that is important for addicts, as their free time was previously consumed by thoughts of procuring and using drugs or alcohol. […]

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