Researchers are interested in and are beginning to understand why physical activity is associated with addiction recovery. In the broadest terms, we know that exercise is good for our bodies and that our brains are part of those bodies. So it makes sense that exercise would positively affect a brain condition like addiction. Whatever the reasons, the evidence is accumulating that exercise and alcohol recovery can be a powerful recovery tool.
Cravings, Exercise and Alcohol Recovery
If you’re addicted to alcohol, the essence of the problem is that you can’t stop despite negative consequences. So why can’t you? People don’t continue harmful behavior because they’ve made a rational, informed decision to do it. There are other reasons at play, and one of them is the presence of strong biologically driven cravings.
A number of studies have shown that exercise can reduce cravings for a variety of addictive substances. For example:
- Heavy-drinking university students who participated in a short exercise circuit had significantly reduced levels of craving for alcohol, which is one important way that exercise and alcohol recovery may be linked. The researchers also found that the exercise produced positive mood effects.
- A study involving heavy marijuana users asked them to exercise on a treadmill 10 times over two weeks. The sessions included 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise. Drug use was measured before, during and two weeks after the study and the experiment included showing the participants visual cues likely to induce cravings. The participants had fewer cravings and reduced marijuana use by more than 50%.
- Researchers asked 24 people addicted to methamphetamine to engage in moderate exercise. Compared to before they began, reported drug cravings were significantly lower during, immediately after and 50 minutes after the exercise sessions. They were also lower than those reported by another group of participants who were asked to read rather than participate in physical activity or exercise.
One theory as to why exercise and alcohol recovery may reduce cravings is that it can mimic and substitute for the effects of alcohol and other addictive substances. It can raise many of the same brain chemicals, such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. The feel-good endorphins produced by exercise can also lower stress levels that otherwise might lead people to reach for drugs or alcohol for relief.
Another theory on why physical activity can lessen cravings was reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in an article on how exercise can reduce cocaine use. Researchers found that exercise may lower levels of the neurotransmitter glutamate in part of the brain. This, in turn, may affect levels of brain proteins associated with craving and drug-seeking behavior.
Exercise and Mental Health
Exercise doesn’t just help people in alcohol recovery manage their cravings. It can also help manage mental health conditions that often coexist with addiction. A study of the effects of exercise on people in addiction treatment found, not unexpectedly, that participants who exercised increased their strength and aerobic capacity. It also found that by the end of the study, the exercisers had significantly lower anxiety levels than non-exercisers did.
The evidence is mounting that exercising produces a range of positive effects in people recovering from drug or alcohol addiction. An analysis of 22 studies on the impact of exercise on substance use disorders found that exercise increased abstinence, eased withdrawal symptoms, and reduced levels of anxiety and depression. The authors noted that six weeks of exercise (35 minutes of moderate to high-intensity activity) significantly reduced depression symptoms in heavy alcohol users.
To maintain lasting recovery, people coming out of addiction need to develop new ways of thinking. Exercise can help with that. It can produce physical changes to the brain’s structure. Things such as increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with thinking and memory. It can also help the brain become more adaptable and make new pathways and associations.
Indirect Benefits of Exercise
Exercise can be done alone or in groups, at home, outside, or at a gym. Sometimes exercise can serve more than one recovery purpose, such as helping to provide a substance-free social activity. You might want to join a softball team, for example, or a soccer league.
A Harvard Health article entitled Can exercise help conquer addiction? notes that nonprofit organizations, such as The Phoenix help people find sustained recovery through exercising together. They have in-person events at various spots across the country and also live-stream classes for people everywhere. The program is free and open to anyone with 48 hours of continuous sobriety.
Getting Started with Exercise and Alcohol Recovery
If you haven’t been very physically active for a while, the idea of exercising can be intimidating. It can help to think of it in other terms. Exercise is essentially just moving more than usual or using muscles more intentionally. If you’re just getting started and you feel overwhelmed by the idea of exercise, just tell yourself that you’ll move a little more today than you did yesterday. Here are some tips to get you going:
Decrease your stress about exercise by getting a checkup.
It’s always a good idea to have a physical checkup and make sure there are no conditions that you should take into account before starting an exercise routine. If you get the green light, it can remove a mental barrier to getting started. If you do have complicating physical issues, they can generally be worked around. Swimming, for example, is often a good choice for people with joint pain.
The mistake people often make when starting an exercise routine is pushing too hard in the beginning. You don’t want to cause yourself so much fatigue or soreness or make it all such a production that you lose your motivation. One of the easiest and cheapest exercises is walking. Walking outside is great. But if you need to start by just walking up and down your hall, then do that.
Prioritize consistency over intensity.
Once you develop the exercise habit, you can build on it. An article on the benefits of exercise in recovery notes that addiction often causes a decrease in self-esteem, which can make the recovery journey more challenging. The author notes that exercise can help rebuild self-confidence, and the boost comes from how regularly you exercise, not the type or intensity of the activity.
Be encouraged that even small steps can bring measurable results.
It actually doesn’t take as much exercise time as you might think to reap recovery benefits. An article in Runner’s World on running to beat addiction reports a study that found it only took 10 minutes of moderate exercise for alcohol cravings to lessen among people early in their alcohol recovery journey. The activity also doesn’t have to be intense in order to produce results. An article on exercise and brain health reported on a study finding that each hour of light-intensity physical activity was associated with higher brain volume.
Work exercise into your daily routine.
Whether or not you have a disability, there are many ways to incorporate exercise into your life. Make it a habit to park at the far side of a parking lot, so you force yourself to walk farther to get into the building. Take an extra 10 or 15 minutes to do some yoga or strength training while you watch TV.
Make it enjoyable.
A key to sticking with a routine is finding something you enjoy doing. Fortunately, there is no lack of options. Of course, you can join a gym, and have access to many different types of exercise equipment. You can also skate, rock climb, ride a bike, practice yoga or dance. If walking on a treadmill bores you, you can make it more interesting by only allowing yourself to do something you enjoy, like watching a certain TV show or listening to your favorite podcast, while also exercising.
Make Exercise and Alcohol Recovery Part of a Comprehensive Program
Although exercise can be very helpful in recovery, it’s only part of a comprehensive treatment plan. An article on how exercise can help you beat addiction puts it this way, “Exercise appears to have great unexplored potential as a supplementary treatment for addictions. Its beneficial effects both on mood, and on withdrawal symptoms, make it a good fit for helping people in recovery from addictions to feel better, to be healthier, and to avoid relapse, and may even help repair some of the neurological damage caused by substance use. However, on its own, exercise won’t help you to understand why you became addicted in the first place, to recognize triggers, or to learn more effective ways of managing your emotions.”
The treatment here at The Right Step Hill Country is comprehensive. We’ll help you determine your physical and emotional needs and make a plan for addressing them. We know you’re unique. And we want to help you get where you want to go, no matter where you’re starting. Give us a call at 844.767.9965, and let’s chat about partnering together.