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The Benefits Of Exercise In Recovery

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

March 12, 2019

Exercising during recovery can help the recovery process as exercise helps to boost mood and provide a distraction from the use of drugs and alcohol.

Exercise has many benefits in recovery. Regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain and body, improving oxygenation of cells and increasing the body’s ability to heal itself after years of drug or alcohol abuse. The many benefits of exercise include a reduction in stress, anxiety, depression, improved sleep cycles, reduction in blood pressure, and most significantly, a reduction in drug cravings.

Benefits of Exercise for the Person in Recovery:

  • Reduction in drug cravings
  • Pain and stress reduction
  • Increased oxygenated blood flow
  • Increase in gray and white matter volume
  • Stabilization of neural network
  • Decrease in blood pressure
  • Increase in strength
  • Stabilization of sleep cycles

Benefits Of Exercise On The Addicted Brain

Repeated drug or alcohol use and abuse changes the brain structurally, leading to a biochemical imbalance that may result in insomnia, stress, fatigue, depression, anxiety, memory losses, extreme mood fluctuations, among other symptoms. Exercise begins a process of restoring some of the malfunction caused by drug or alcohol abuse.

While drugs and alcohol can actually cause brain shrinkage, especially in the areas of the pre frontal cortex–an important part of the brain associated with cognition and memory–exercise can stimulate growth of new cells. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, carrying oxygen vital to improvements in the volume of both white and grey matter. These changes can have a positive effect on the regulation of everything from sleep cycles to appetite to memory retention and cognitive functioning.

Exercise also contributes to increases in certain neurotransmitters that can reduce both physical and mental pain. Stimulation of endorphins and the dopaminergic reward system of the brain are a primary pain reduction. Endorphins are released when the body is under the kind of physical strain exercise can induce. They bind with opioid receptors to raise the body’s natural pain threshold, allowing for greater endurance during strenuous activities.

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Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and much like the more addictive substances, they result in a dopamine release from the brain’s reward centers, otherwise known as the nucleus accumbens. Someone experiencing this small dopamine rush might feel a bit euphoric. Runners refer to this as a “runner’s high.”

For someone recovering from use of drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, exercises and the subsequent release of endorphins and dopamine can not only reduce stress and act as part of a positive coping strategy, but in binding with opioid receptors, it can also help reduce cravings for opiates.

More recent research indicates that in people who exercise, a release of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) can also benefit someone newly in recovery by reducing stress and anxiety. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is an inhibitory neurotransmitter and in individuals suffering from addiction, it is often reduced significantly. The result is increased anxiety, depression, and even paranoia. When GABA is activated, it has a calming effect not only on our emotions, but also on our smooth muscle tissue, reducing anxiety and depression, and related symptoms.

The studies revealed that individuals who run regularly, have a faster response to external stressors, releasing GABA and reducing anxiety faster than those who do not run or exercise.  For someone developing positive coping strategies in place of former drug or alcohol use, this result is an added incentive.

Benefits Of Exercise On The Body In Recovery

When someone is suffering from a substance use disorder, their body changes drastically. Depending on the substance, they might see a dramatic shift in blood pressure, heart rhythm, weight, a drastic decrease in muscle tone, lung, liver, or kidney damage, hair loss, bone damage, changes in the skin, nails, and teeth, etc. Exercise can begin reversing some of the adverse health impacts of drug use and with some immediate positive results.

Soon after someone begins exercising, they will begin to see a decrease in blood pressure and an increase in smooth muscle. If you are overweight, exercise can help reduce unnecessary fat. For individuals who are underweight, it can regulate a healthy appetite. If you’ve suffered any bone density loss through poor nutrition while using, exercise and a diet can quickly help restore bone density

Increased blood flow from exercise has many benefits for vital organs. The liver, especially in someone recovering from alcohol addiction, may be fatty or have suffered scarring. Exercise can  reduce fatty build-up, thereby increasing energy and improving overall liver function. Kidney function also improves. As you exercise, you’re also likely to be taking in more water, which helps flush toxins out of the kidneys and liver.

Often, decreased blood flow to the skin during drug use creates a wide-range of dermatological issues. Exercise improves blood-flow, oxygenating this large and (often overlooked) vital organ and improving not only skin health, but appearance, as well.

Benefits Of Exercise For Those Leaving Drug Or Alcohol Treatment

Apart from the physiological changes in the brain and body, one of the most important things a person in recovery can do is seek out new and rewarding habits to replace the time they had once spent using. A regular exercise routine, whether walking, hiking, swimming, or a quick cardio workout, is a habit that both improves health and well-being, while relieving stress.

One way to increase the benefit of exercise, is to keep a journal and notice times of the day when you feel bored or experience cravings more often. Begin substituting one of those experiences with a period of exercise or yoga. Make sure your goals are reasonable and attainable. Creating more stress by demanding too much of your body at once is not conducive to a positive impact. Instead, make slow and steady progress.

Exercise can also be social. Invite a friend for a walk, go for a swim together, or consider joining a club for such activities. The benefits of exercise on the addicted brain and body are enormous.

Exercise Your Right To Get Free From Addiction

Addiction is a powerful disease. If you or someone you love is suffering with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, can put you in touch with the online resources, professional support, and evidence-based treatment options available to meet your individual needs and preferences. Get the compassionate care you deserve by reaching out and contacting us today and discover a new and rewarding life in recovery.

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