Man in class exercising to help depression and addiction

Get Moving! Does Physical Exercise Help Depression and Addiction?

Today, we are going to discuss how exercise help depression and addiction. But before we get into all of that, did you ever participate in a talent show as a kid? 

Maybe you danced. Maybe you performed magic tricks. Maybe—like me—you wowed the crowd with your lip-sync skills. (If only everyone could be so cool). 

Picture it: 

Opening night is just days away, and you spend every spare minute in front of your mirror, hairbrush in hand, as you belt out the song that’s sure to rocket you to the top of the charts at Somewhere Elementary. 

Right when you hit the high note, your mom barges in to say, “You know what would really make your performance shine? Sleep!” 

Talk about a buzzkill. Not to mention a suggestion totally unrelated to showcasing your talent. 

Well, basically, that’s what we’re going to do to you today. Right now, you’re laser-focused on recovering from addiction or overcoming a mental health issue. You’re giving it all you’ve got. And we’re barging in to say, “Have you thought about exercise?” 

Well, have you?

Why Are We Talking About How Exercise Helps Depression and Addiction, Anyway?

That’s a fair question, and we’ll follow it up with another: Does physical exercise help depression and addiction? The answer is yes! And now you have your why. 

After all, your mom was right. Sleep helps our bodies operate at their best—and our throats in particular benefit from a good night’s rest. Enough sleep might just be the secret sauce that helped 10-year-old you take home the talent-show trophy. 

And—not to make too big a thing of it—but we’re right too. 

Exercise isn’t so left-field of a suggestion for making progress on your mental health and recovery journey—quite the opposite. Exercise is fundamental! 

You know this. Just like your 10-year-old talent show, you sort of already knew you should catch some z’s. But let’s dig a little deeper and talk about exactly how exercise helps depression and addiction and makes recovery shine. And what you can do to get your body moving in the right direction today. 

3 Big Benefits of Exercise For Your Mental Health and Recovery Journey

Sure, exercise is good for everyone, but does physical exercise help depression and addiction in unique and specific ways? Absolutely! 

We’ve long known that exercise can boost mood and combat cravings in the moment. But researchers are learning so much more about the role exercise plays in your mental health and recovery journey. Supportive studies have found: 

Let’s talk about what’s happening in your body, brain and elsewhere when you exercise: 

Exercise Supports Your Body

Let’s start with a big-picture approach on this one, shall we? You may have stumbled onto this article as you work toward sobriety. You might be on a journey toward better mental health. Or, perhaps, you’ve struggled with both. 

Regardless, the odds are good that your body has taken a beating in the recent past. 

Depression and anxiety can sometimes lead to a decrease in self-care and maybe even a waning desire to get out of bed and move around your house and in your community in normal, routine ways. 

And addiction to drugs or alcohol involves pumping your body full of toxins and, sometimes, engaging in other behaviors or activities that fall short of living a healthy lifestyle. 

Exercise aims to change all of that. 

If you’ve struggled with mental health issues, a commitment to daily exercise forces you to get up and engage with the world around you in a real and tangible way. To breathe deeply, to feel your muscles at work, to sweat and to acknowledge the aches that follow as a sign that, “Yes, I am alive, and it feels good to be alive.” 

If you’ve struggled with addiction, regular exercise improves circulation and lowers inflammation—two functions that are key to your body’s ability to rid itself of toxins. What’s more: Exercise acts as a physical reminder of what your body is capable of when you treat it with respect. 

Exercise Boosts Your Brain

Beyond body benefits, exercise is so kind to our brains. And the evidence of this can be near-immediate. As someone who personally struggles with anxiety—and increasingly so since the start of March 2020—exercise offers me an out. An hour here or 20 minutes there to think about nothing but counting reps and steadying my breath. 

And studies show that this momentary distraction leads to long-lasting mood-boosting. 

Here’s why: With anxiety or depression, or after struggling with an addiction, you’re operating with lower levels of dopamine and serotonin—sometimes referred to as “feel-good neurotransmitters.” Spurts of intense exercise can fill in the dopamine and serotonin gaps created by mental health struggles or prolonged addiction. 

Pair exercise with therapy and medication and you’re packing a powerful punch! 

This matters big time for recovery. After all, if you’re used to getting endorphins from taking a hit or a sip, exercise offers an alternative option for getting the feel-goods. And that means you’ll be more likely to stave off a craving when it comes. 

And if that’s not enough, exercise can also help depression and addiction by reducing protein levels in the brain known to facilitate drug cravings. How amazing is that? It’s no wonder one study found exercise effectively reduced drug use across the board for people struggling with addictions to methamphetamine, amphetamine and cocaine. 

Exercise Offers Bonus Benefits, Too

Of course, it’s not just your brain and body that have something to gain from regular exercise during your mental health and recovery journey. Working out as part of a strategy to overcome addiction, anxiety or depression offers so many bonus benefits!

You’ll meet new (like-minded) people

Exercise offers the opportunity to bond with others on the same trajectory as you: working toward a healthier lifestyle. And while, yes, it’s good and encouraged to find a community of others who understand where you’ve been, it’s equally as beneficial to pair up with folks who understand where you’re going. 

You’ll practice setting and accomplishing goals

Yes, your overarching goal may be to hit a sobriety milestone, but your goal may be to exercise for twenty minutes on any given day. Each time you check this item off of your to-do list, you’re reminding yourself that you truly can go after your goals—big or small. 

You’ll sit with discomfort and learn to power through

Exercise can be tough in the moment. Your breathing may become a bit labored. You might sweat more than you’re used to. By continuing to move, you’re reminding yourself, “I can do hard things.” And you’re giving yourself a regular opportunity to recognize that on the other side of hard things is a beautiful reward. 

You’ll add structure to your week

Regular exercise—especially when routinely scheduled—acts as a foundation on which to build your week. You might say, “I always exercise on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.” Before long, you may be encouraged to add other enriching routines to your schedule. Maybe you’ll meet a friend for lunch every Tuesday and schedule time for personal reflection on Thursdays. 

You’ll increase your self-confidence

As you watch your body go from struggling to move to moving with ease, your self-confidence will grow. It might be something as simple as enjoying the way it feels to move and interact with others in a more healthy way. You’ll have more energy for adventures with friends and playtime with your kids. 

And all of these benefits add up to one overarching reason to exercise: long-term success on your mental health and recovery journey. 

The Good News: Exercise Isn’t Always Easy, But It Can Be Simple 

Breaking a sweat takes determination—heck, getting dressed to exercise is a commitment all in and of itself. So we won’t claim that exercise is easy. But you can keep it simple and still take advantage of all the rewards it has to offer you on your mental health and recovery journey. 

You may choose to join a gym where you facilitate your own workout routine, or you might join a class where all you need to do is show up and follow the instructors’ lead. 

But you can also try on less formal options if you’d like: 

  • A daily walk 
  • Strenuous weekend hikes 
  • Ride a bike
  • Kayaking, paddleboarding or canoeing 
  • A pickup game of basketball or soccer
  • Intentional stretching
  • Yoga (Try YouTube for easy-to-follow videos!)
  • Dancing

Regardless of what you choose, here’s the formula you’re going for: exercise for at least twenty minutes per session at least three days a week. 

Researchers found that while, yes, more intense exercise options—like team sports, cycling and typical classes in a gym—showed the biggest payoff for mental health, even caring for your home and children in a way that requires movement helped too. 

So get creative! You can find ways to exercise more regularly as you work toward reaching your mental health and recovery goals. 

Need more ideas for how you might incorporate exercise into your mental health and recovery journey? We’d love to help. Give us a call at 844.686.6818.

By Stephanie Thomas, Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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