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Why Physical Exercise is Important in Drug and Alcohol Treatment and Relapse Prevention


By Chris Cordell, Tacko Mbengue and Jai Andrews

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The reality is that when someone is drinking regularly and using drugs they aren’t very likely to be exercising a whole lot. Between getting high or drunk and going through withdrawal or having a hangover it’s a little difficult to make time to focus on physical exercise.  Mostly because who wants to exercise when they are high or hungover? Add in the cost of a gym membership which diverts money away from using and it’s pretty safe to assume that most people in the throes of problematic alcohol and drug use aren’t gonna be working out a whole lot. Like anything else, there are always exceptions, but it’s pretty safe to assume exercise is not on the top of the priority list for someone who is actively using.

Because drugs and alcohol are often used as a means to self-medicate and deal with a whole host of things such as depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger etc.  it becomes especially important for someone who has decided to quit the booze and the drugs to develop some other healthy coping mechanisms. People can often mistake problematic alcohol and drug use as the problem itself when in truth it is the symptom of the problem. A coping strategy. For example, we have had clients who were drinking every day, but the drink was masking deep anger problems and depression. When the booze was gone, they had sobered up, but they were no closer to working through the anger and the depression. Obviously, the psychotherapy they undertook as part of their treatment programme helped but you can’t be in therapy every minute of the day and exercise can be a great way to manage cravings.

Cravings begins in the mind. For whatever reason, you find yourself thinking about having a drink or using drugs. This is just a thought to begin with, and in itself a thought can’t harm you. But these thoughts trigger physical reactions - Sweating palms, nervous energy, anxiety. When these physical reactions kick in it becomes even harder to control cravings. This is one of the reasons relapses are so common and so hard to control. But there is a way to use the connection between mind and body as a positive: by engaging in physical activities, it is possible to alter your state of mind. And often this can be far more effective than thinking about it. After all, since addiction and many mental health issues are fundamentally rooted in the mind, using that very same mind to try and think your way out of the problems is inherently problematic.

"State Break" And Other Benefits Of Exercise

The brilliant thing about physical activity is that it can act as a ‘state break’. You can come into a boxing session feeling moody and low, but after punching a bag for a while a lot of that anger and stress can be released. Physically, your body releases endorphins too which has been shown to elevate mood. And this can begin a chain reaction. Off the back of that good feeling, you might decide that instead of drinking or using, you’ll now go and cook a healthy dinner instead. That experience will elevate your sense of efficacy and self-worth. Just as addiction can descend into a downward spiral, recovery can become something of an upward spiral.

Exercise can bring other benefits too:

Improved Sleep

Exercising regularly leads to improved sleep. When you sleep better and feel more rested your overall quality of life improves. Sleep regulates blood pressure and a good night’s rest improves mood. Sleep has been linked to people’s emotional and social state. Empathy is more prominent in your behaviour and is more accessible when you get a good night’s rest. Your attitude and ability to socialise are also in a better state after a good night’s rest. All of these factors are critical to life in recovery. People who get enough rest each night are also less likely to suffer from depression and other unpleasant moods.

Exercise Can Help You Feel Better

The process of working out releases several chemicals in the brain that help you feel better. Endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine are all released during exercise and help to generate an overall sense of well-being.

Exercise Helps Heal the Body

Regular exercise improves cardiovascular health which leads to a decreased risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Exercise boosts the immune system and has been shown to help improve mental health as well.

Working Out Regularly Takes Up Time

When you are trying to get on top of your drug and alcohol problems, it is usually a good idea to stay busy, especially in the beginning stages. Exercising regularly is a great way to keep busy.

Regular Workout Routines Provide Structure

When you are in the mist of using drugs and alcohol this life usually does not contain much structure. An important aspect of relapse prevention is developing healthy habits and routines and regular workouts are a great way for this.

Exercise Is a Healthy Coping Mechanism

Not only does exercise help reduce stress, but it is also a healthy way to deal with it.

Working Out Helps Improve Self-Confidence

Another added benefit of exercise is an improved sense of self-confidence. When you take good care of your body you will start to feel more confident about yourself.

It’s a Good Way to Meet People in a Safe Environment

It can be difficult to meet new friends in early recovery. Going to a gym or participating in exercise with a group of people is a great way to meet people without drinking or using drugs. Furthermore, if you join a class then there is nothing quite like the feeling of accomplishing something challenging with a group of other people. While being fun it also helps bring people together.

Increased Success Rates for Long Term Abstinence

Studies have shown that people in addiction recovery who exercise regularly have higher success rates of long-term abstinence especially when taking into consideration that regular exercise helps with stress reduction, improved sleep, an increased sense of well-being and overall health.

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Community Gyms And Private Support

There are plenty of low-cost gyms to access in the community as well as  organizations like Act Sports Network.  Tacko Mbengue and the other founders of ACT have extensive experience working with adults and young people who are or have been affected by drug and alcohol use. This work has led to them forging indelible relationships with local governments, charities as well as local support organisations offering a unique, revolutionary, and proven sports/mentoring programme. https://www.actsportsnetwork.com/

Whatever way you look at it ensuring regular excise is part of your relapse prevention plan is not only a good idea but should be essential.

First Steps

The gateway to a healthy life is to get off the drugs and alcohol as a starting point. New methods of drug and alcohol treatment are changing. If you or someone you care about is struggling with alcohol or drug use there are options. Help Me Stop’s intensive non-residential face to face Dayhab programme offers accessible treatment options as well as aftercare and family support options to minimize the risk of relapse and to maximize the support of friends and loved ones that is so important to long-term success.

Our evening 6 week online drug and alcohol treatment programme is highly effective and delivers real time intensive therapy in your room and is  an excellent choice for adults who can’t access services in the day or get to our centre in West London. Families can also access support online.

If you would like to know more then call us now on 0208 191 9174 or jump onto Live Chat or e-mail us directly at https://helpmestop.org.uk/contact-us

Chris Cordell is Help Me Stop's General Manager and is a senior associate member of the Royal Society of Medicine, Certified International Recovery Specialist, member of the International Society of Addiction Medicine and a member of the Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals.

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