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The importance of exercise in alcohol and drug treatment and recovery

By Tim Woodley

It’s no understatement that progressing on the path to long-term recovery is hard. For many, it becomes one of the defining challenges of their entire lives, calling on an inner strength that, while within us all, can be difficult to unlock.

Today we’re talking about exercise as a support system for recovery, namely how it can be a benefit and ally to a person going through alcohol and drug treatment. Just as studies increasingly show exercise to be a benefit to general mental health, in the modern-day we have a more appropriate appreciation of the role of exercise in recovery.

Although not every person going through recovery may be physically able to exercise, our experience shows it to be beneficial during and after treatment for individuals able to do so. In the interest of helping such people and arming them and those close to them with the knowledge of these benefits, we’re talking about exercise and recovery in a little more detail in this article.

As the body and mind is re-adjusting itself to a life without alcohol or drugs, it is undergoing numerous changes. These changes, while positive in the long term, may seem at times unbearable in the interim.

Increased feelings of stress, poor sleep, and depressed or anxious mood may follow individuals into recovery even after the detoxification period has ended. This is where exercise becomes beneficial. Individuals in recovery who engage in regular physical exercise can benefit from a reduction in stress, better sleep, increased energy, improved mood, and more.


Exercise and the brain

In our recent article covering the addictive qualities of alcohol, we mentioned neurotransmitters and the brain. Similar to how dopamine is released when drinking, so too are endorphins released in the brain when we exercise.

What are endorphins? Simply put, it’s a hormone our brain releases that helps regulate our mood – namely, it makes us feel good. The release of endorphins in the brain is pleasurable and is used as a means for our brain to encourage us to repeat activities that make our bodies healthier.

In the case of exercise, we can form a positive addiction to activities that benefit us. Just as negative addiction can form through problematic use of drugs and alcohol, the release of endorphins during exercise is an important tool in helping us to stick to exercise regimes that benefit our general health and, if in treatment, our long term recovery.


A mirror to alcohol and drug recovery

It’s fair to say there are some parallels to the process of exercise and the process of recovery. If you’re a bit out of shape and want to better yourself physically, it’s hard at first; you have little energy and ingraining a new habit into your life that involves challenging physical activity is no small thing to achieve.

This is similar to how treatment can feel for those going through it; the individual knows it’s important in restoring their life to a positive place, but it’s not without challenge.

How can this be a benefit? In many ways, our minds – and our willpower – are like muscles. Discipline isn’t built in a day; it’s a game of reinforcing good habits in our lives over time. The kind of discipline drawn on when exercising and improving your physical health is very similar to the discipline needed to succeed in recovery, and it’s a very real thing that what you learn in one can transfer to the other. In this way, exercise can build the mental muscle you need to succeed in a treatment programme.


More benefits of exercise

Here are a few more ways in which exercise can be a powerful tool and ally during and after treatment.

You’ll handle emotion and stress better: Treatment can be challenging and stressful, and any tool that lets you manage that stress better is important to consider. Exercise can allow you to purge and release stress or strong emotion you may feel, such as anger.

Hobbies help: A positive hobby is vital for anyone in recovery. Replacing problematic drug and alcohol use with other things that are beneficial instead of destructive is enormously important to recovery, and exercise is a prime example of such an activity.

Your mood will improve: As we established earlier in the article, the release of endorphins makes you feel better. Knowing this, you can use exercise as a sort of tactical tool to boost your mood at critical moments when you’re feeling particularly stressed or upset.

You’ll have more energy for recovery: We know as well as any that recovery and treatment need to fit around everyday life and work – it’s why we operate a flexible non-residential Dayhab programme. Treatment on top of your daily obligations draws on your reserves of energy and inner strength, making anything that can increase those reserves – like exercise – very valuable.


Reducing cravings

Cravings, or the mental and physical urges and compulsions to drink or use drugs, are a hallmark of trying to give up alcohol and drugs. These feelings are strongest during the first few months of abstinence, receding in intensity over time the longer one has been successfully abstinent.

But research now shows that exercise is one way to reduce these cravings and the substance abuse associated with them. Researchers at Vanderbilt found that after 10 30-minute sessions on a treadmill over a two-week period, heavy cannabis users were able to cut their cravings and cannabis use by more than 50 percent. Similar studies at the University of Minnesota and the University of Virginia found a similar reduction in cravings for cocaine users.


Thank you for your time

We hope you’ve found today’s article from the team informative and useful. Exercise doesn’t have to be hours in the gym; one activity may suit you better than another, so it’s best to experiment with many options. You may even find that a combination of the following types of exercise is right for you: walking, swimming, yoga, cycling, weight training and other gym based exercises even if only for 30 minutes. For those who can, exercise is a positive tool for succeeding in treatment and in your overall journey of recovery.

If you have come to realise that yours, or someone you know, alcohol and drug behaviour is getting out of control and would  like to speak to a member of the Help Me Stop team directly, please call us on 0208 191 8920 or use our contact form.