6 Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Jordan Kadish
August 23, 2022

Exercise is important for more than just your physical health. Drug and/or alcohol use changes your body’s natural chemistry. When it becomes a dependency, it alters the neurotransmitters in your brain that allow you to experience positive feelings like pleasure. Because of this, people with substance use disorders often feel depressed, unmotivated, and have an overall low mood when they are going through recovery and abstaining from using substances. 

Although recovery is no easy journey, there are fortunately a few habits you can put in place that may ease negative feelings. By making an effort to be more active, you can see a change in your mental health and recovery. Additionally, recovery is often a time in which people with substance use disorder feel helpless or like they lack control over their bodies. Fitness can be extremely grounding and help people feel like they can make an active difference in their journey to recovery. 

It can be difficult to get started exercising, but just 30 minutes a day could change your life forever! 

6 Benefits of Exercise

in Addiction Recovery

Better Sleep:

Being active helps you experience deeper sleep at night, which can have a huge impact on your recovery. Research has shown that people who exercise during the day have a significantly easier time falling asleep than people who don’t exercise at all. Proper sleep is essential for ensuring your brain can function effectively each day.

Feeling well-rested can mean the difference between a good day and a bad one. Deeper sleep allows your body time to heal physically and recover from a stressful or painful day. Medical professionals recommend that adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night to stay healthy. A good night’s sleep will likely allow you to wake up the next morning with a clear head, and exercising during the day is the perfect way to achieve this!

Decreases Stress:

During recovery, it is very common to feel stressed or anxious about the future or your current state. Fitness can help relieve stress that may be weighing on your mind, and by extension, your body. The improvement in sleep quality due to exercise also contributes to reducing the amount of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, your body makes.

When exercising, your body also releases “feel-good neurotransmitters”, or endorphins, in your brain. These endorphins are what create what is commonly referred to as a “runner’s high”, otherwise referring to the increase in positive emotions felt during and after exercise. 

Prevents and eases co-occurring disorders:

The mental and physical health benefits of exercise mean that it is also a good tool for coping and treating co-occurring disorders, from depression to chronic pain. One research study concluded that light exercise not only decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety in sufferers during their participation in a 12-week aerobic exercise program but that their happier and calmer moods persisted up to 12 months after. 

Similar research also found that regular light-intensity aerobic exercise can lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, thus reducing your risk for high cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases. You already have a lot on your plate with your recovery—it’s best to reduce the risk of other factors that could give you more to deal with.

Increases Dopamine:

With all the patience and hard work you are putting into recovery, you may be feeling a bit burnt out and low. Quitting substances can also initially affect your dopamine levels (the brain’s “happy chemical). However, you can still experience a boost of dopamine and positive moods during recovery by exercising daily. Fitness can be the perfect boost of dopamine that you require to bring out happier moods and a more alert mind.

Curbs Cravings:

Research has shown that people in recovery who exercise regularly are more likely to abstain from substance use for longer periods than those who do not exercise. This is because exercise can act as a distraction or a “healthier craving”. 

When someone becomes immersed in their fitness routine of choice, it can take their mind away from thoughts about cravings. A powerful way to reduce cravings is to simply delay them by doing something else. Many times, this delay helps the craving to simply pass. 

Creates Routine:

Forming new healthy habits after treatment for substance use disorders can be difficult. This is especially true for people who had just been released from inpatient recovery programs and now feel as though they are “on their own” in their decision-making. Professionals have addressed that creating structured fitness routines helps reduce temptations to return to unhealthy habits. 

A person raises their arms at the top of a set of stairs

What Types of Exercise Can I Do?

Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated. Creating an exercise routine can take time and practice. Starting small is always a good way to ease yourself into the process. Try short exercise routines at first—just 10-15 minutes a day can still hold positive results. Then, if you find that exercise is enjoyable and effective, you can work your way up to longer or more difficult routines. Here are a few exercises that are especially beneficial for recovery: 

  1. Swimming is a low-impact exercise that uses the whole body and is known to alleviate stress and help with cravings. A research study concluded that withdrawal symptoms decreased after swimming regularly. 
  2. Yoga is an effective form of exercise for recovery because it focuses on mental health while still exercising the body. Yoga often requires participants to meditate, which helps ease the mind and help it work through any anxieties that arise. This is why yoga is commonly incorporated into structured substance use disorder treatment programs! 
  3. Team sports are a fun way of combining fitness and socializing. Having an outlet for social connection can help reduce cravings and increase a sense of belonging and self-esteem, both of which are essential in recovery. 

Recovery isn’t an easy journey, but there are ways to make it better. When you’re feeling stressed or sad or are experiencing intense cravings, incorporating daily exercise can be an incredible help in addition to ongoing professional treatment.

Eleanor Health is here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, and Washington.

Get Started Today

Jordan Kadish

Jordan Kadish graduated Magna Cum Laude from The College of New Jersey with a B.A. in Psychology and a Minor in Gender Studies. Jordan is passionate about all things mental health & wellness and is thrilled to be able to help her community in any way possible.

Addiction & recovery Blog

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