How Does Exercise Help with the Recovery Process?

For many people, high levels of stress are just a normal part of life. But did you know that there is a strong link between stress and addiction cycles? Physical, emotional, and mental stress can all contribute to the patterns that often lead to substance abuse and addiction. And although there are many therapies that can help you manage stress during the recovery process, exercise can be one of the most effective.

What Does Research Say About Exercise and Addiction?

Studies with both animals and humans have shown that exercise is an underutilized treatment for stress reduction. This makes it an excellent option helping those in recovery from alcohol abuse and alcoholism, as well as many types of drug abuse.

A recent study has highlighted the strong link between alcohol use disorders and depression. For these co-occurring disorders, exercise such as aerobics and strength training yield positive and almost immediate results. Such research has led to exercise programs becoming more and more popular as a supplementary therapy in drug and alcohol treatment centers. But why does exercise prove so helpful for those in recovery? In short, the complex human organ known as the brain.

How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?

Physical exercise stimulates what is known as the “reward center” of the brain. If you are currently in recovery or are acquainted with the process, this term should sound familiar to you. The reward center of the brain can have an effect on mood, emotions, and pain/pleasure signals. This center is regulated by the chemicals dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which are produced by positive behaviors including rigorous exercise and physical activity.

While it’s true that drugs and alcohol can trigger these same chemical responses in the brain—which is why addiction is a lifelong recovery process—exercise can achieve the same response. Feelings of euphoria, a pleasurable “high,” and an overall positive outlook on life through exercise can be healthy ways to retrain the brain.

What are the Benefits of Exercise?

Although exercise should not be seen as the sole treatment for addiction recovery, it has major benefits and is an important addition to any long-term recovery treatment plan. Some of these benefits include:

  • Stress Reduction: After leaving residential treatment, one of the most common things that can cause a relapse is stress. Someone in recovery from addiction needs to be extra cautious with stress triggers since stress likely played a role in their coping mechanisms. But exercise releases endorphins which reduce stress and make you feel good—both during and after physical exertion. Exercise also increases blood circulation, which can reduce blood pressure and minimize the negative impact of stressful feelings.
  • Creates a Daily Routine: Exercise can also help someone in recovery structure their day. Some forms of exercise like classes or team activities require you to attend practices and games at certain times. By helping you schedule “down time,” exercise activities can be another way of having fun that doesn’t involve tempting situations to drink or use.
  • Mind and Body Healing: On top of the benefits exercise has for brain chemistry, physical activity can help prevent diabetes, improve heart and respiratory health, and even minimize your risk for some types of cancer. Paired with good nutrition, exercise also strengthens the immune system and reduces overall inflammation responses.

There are also many benefits that exercise has for the mind and general psychological health. This includes stabilizing mood swings with consistent dopamine and serotonin production. In some cases, physical exercise can even begin to heal and reverse damage from harmful substances used during addictive cycles.

What are Some of the Best Exercises During Recovery?

Although any type of physical activity is better than nothing, it is important to also practice true exercise—this means working hard, getting your heart rate up, and sweating.

  • Cardio and Aerobic Exercise: If you’re not sure where to start with cardio, you can begin with brisk walking for at least thirty minutes a day. Your pace should be fast enough to make you slightly out of breath and build up a sweat. Jogging and running may soon follow, provided your health professional approves your ability to do so. There are also a number of home workouts you can do with online videos, straight from your living room.
  • Strength Training and Weight Lifting: Building muscle and toning your figure is a great place to start while in recovery. It can also build up your confidence and self-image. Strength training can also help reduce depression symptoms, which can minimize the risk of relapse. When lifting weights, start by joining a class, gym, or working with a personal trainer so you make sure to avoid injury.
  • Yoga: Another type of exercise that is “low-impact” is yoga, a practice implemented in many recovery programs. Many types of yoga combine physical and mental refinement, using stretching, strengthening, breathing, and meditation. You can do yoga in a group class, with a friend, or on your own.
  • Outdoor Sports: Getting outside and spending time in nature is one of the best medicines for those in recovery. Activities like cycling, hiking, and even gardening can be good forms of exercise as well as a chance to soak up the ever-important vitamin D—the mood-improving vitamin.

Exercise as a Part of Your Holistic Treatment Plan

Remember that exercise is only one element of your broader recovery process. When used as a complementary therapy with other professional supervised therapies, exercise is a very effective component for healing. Alongside individual counseling, support group meetings, and other parts of your recovery plan, physical exercise can yield quick and positive results.

By being holistic with your exercise regime, you avoid becoming “addicted” to certain ways of doing things and repeating unhealthy patterns. Taking a day off here and there, switching up your regimen, and including other people in your activity hep you maintain a healthy balance in life. Exercise shouldn’t be the fix-all solution to your problems but rather one petal on the flower of your healing journey.

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