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  • Substance abuse and addiction affects over 20 million individuals and families across the United States. Although treatable, addiction to drugs and alcohol is notoriously difficult to treat, and maintaining sobriety can be a challenge for many.

    Recovering from addiction may require treatment at multiple levels of care, first in an inpatient program and then on an outpatient basis. Finding the right treatment for yourself or a loved one—in addition to a long-term social support system—can be critical towards becoming sober and maintaining that sobriety on the journey towards recovery. 

    To address the effects of drugs and alcohol on physical, mental, and emotional well-being, many addiction treatment centers have adopted a whole-person approach to treatment. This approach may utilize a variety of traditional treatments—such as behavioral therapy—as well as movement therapies. 

    Movement therapies may use various forms of physical movement to improve physical, mental, and emotional well-being, as well as manage ongoing struggles with illness. 

    Physical activities that may be helpful for addiction recovery include:

    • Walking
    • Hiking
    • Jogging
    • Tai Chi
    • Yoga
    • Dance
    • Swimming
    • And other physical activities

    Physical activity and certain forms of exercise are associated with a wide range of benefits for mental and physical health. Certain types of exercise have been found to be useful for both preventing and treating addiction to substances like heroin, alcohol, prescription opioids, and cocaine.

    Within a formal treatment program, exercise may serve as a useful, non-pharmaceutical strategy for reducing drug cravings, reducing anxiety, and easing withdrawal.

    What Are The Benefits Of Exercise During Addiction Treatment?

    Chronic drug and alcohol abuse can cause consistent fatigue and reduce energy levels. As a result, many people may abandon attempts to engage in moderate or intensive exercise within their normal routine. 

    Research on the healthful effects of exercise has shown that certain forms of physical activity can improve measures of physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being—in the general population and in people overcoming addiction to drugs and alcohol.

    According to addiction research, engaging in physical activity may offer several important benefits for people in various stages of the addiction recovery process. Along with a varied diet and other healthful behaviors, exercise can be a supportive aspect of a healthy lifestyle in recovery.

    The benefits of physical exercise in addiction recovery may vary depending on:

    • the type of exercise
    • the type of addiction
    • method of drug use (e.g. injection, oral, smoking)
    • current or former health issues
    • and other personal factors

    The following is a list of some of the most notable health benefits researchers have identified for people in early sobriety and recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.

    Improved Mental Health

    Depression and anxiety are common struggles among people who are struggling with addiction as well as those in early recovery. 

    After alcohol and drug detox, people in early sobriety may experience low mood and agitation as protracted symptoms of withdrawal. This can be due in part to a depletion in “feel-good” brain chemicals, such as GABA, dopamine, and serotonin. These chemicals can also be altered as a result of abusing drugs like opioids and alcohol.

    Both low-impact and vigorous forms of exercise, such as brisk walking, running, and swimming, can help produce some of these “feel good” brain chemicals and release healthy endorphins. This can improve mood, increase energy levels, and increase feelings of self-esteem and confidence. 

    For people with co-occurring mental health disorders, physical exercise may be used as a supplemental treatment strategy along with mental health counseling, dual diagnosis groups, and supportive medication.

    Reduced Drug Cravings

    Drug and alcohol cravings are a known symptom of withdrawal in early sobriety, and can be difficult to overcome without medical and behavioral support. Cravings for drugs can be physical and psychological. For people with a long history of substance abuse, it may feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable to try to get through the day without using former drugs of abuse.

    In addition to medication-assisted treatment and behavioral therapy, there are some forms of physical exercise that have been found to help ease drug cravings among people in early recovery from addiction.

    For instance, one study on the usefulness of yoga and mindfulness techniques in the addiction treatment process found that certain types of yoga may be helpful for reducing drug cravings, drug-seeking behavior, and helping break cycles of stress. 

    Aerobic exercises—such as walking and running—have also shown to help reduce strong cravings in people with a former addiction to cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and amphetamine. 

    Easing Withdrawal Symptoms

    Drug and alcohol abuse can have lasting effects on the mind and body, even after a person has become sober. Lingering withdrawal symptoms, such as low mood, agitation, drug cravings, and anxiety, can make it difficult to resist urges to return to drug use—especially among people who aren’t in a structured treatment program. 

    Managing withdrawal symptoms during detox and in early sobriety is a key focus among addiction treatment providers. According to several studies, aerobic exercise and mind-body practices may help ease some withdrawal symptoms among people in early substance abuse recovery. 

    Exercising may serve as a useful distraction for people who may feel overwhelmed by drug cravings and urges to use. It may also reduce anxiety, stress, and promote a good mood. 

    Better Sleep

    Chronic substance abuse can have major effects on a person’s sleep cycle. For some, heavy drug use may cause a person to sleep more. Others may find themselves struggling to fall asleep or to stay asleep throughout the night. 

    Unfortunately, these struggles may not immediately go away after getting sober. Severe alcohol abuse has been shown to have long-term effects on a person’s sleep cycle, which may or may not get better in time. 

    In early recovery, there are various bodily systems that may be working to normalize after the chronic, harmful effects of substance abuse. A normal sleep sleep cycle can be one of them. Even still, insomnia can be a difficult issue to grapple with in early recovery, and may affect mood, concentration, and ability to engage in day-to-day activities.

    For the general population, exercise has been proposed as a healthy solution to promote restfulness in people who struggle with sleep difficulties. Physical fitness has also been found to help improve sleep quality among former alcoholics, in conjunction with other treatments. 

    Regaining Physical Strength

    Physical fitness and exercise in early recovery may help former addicts regain their physical strength and restore muscle mass that may have been lost as a result of poor diet, lack of exercise, and other drug-induced deficiencies. 

    Engaging in strength-based training can feel very rewarding. Moving the body through activities such as dance, rock-climbing, or weight-lifting for instance, may promote healthy muscle gain, improve mood, and offer other benefits for people in early recovery.

    Prompting Social Connections

    Another key benefit of looking to physical movement for health benefits in addiction recovery is the opportunity to forge positive connections with other people. This may include others in recovery, fitness professionals, or general people in your community.

    Forging personal connections in early sobriety can be an important aspect of a person’s recovery journey. In the midst of addiction, many people turn inwards, isolating from other people. It’s not uncommon to struggle with relearning how to interact with people in sobriety or develop connections with people for reasons unrelated to substance use.

    Getting involved with local fitness clubs, classes, or organizations specifically designated for people in sobriety can be a useful way not only to reap the healthful benefits of exercise but also to regain that connection with other people. This can promote a meaningful sense of camaraderie and togetherness.

    Fitness classes, sessions, and clubs can also add structure to your routine and keep you accountable for continuing to work towards your health and wellness goals.

    Can Exercise Be A Standalone Treatment For Addiction?

    Physical activity alone is not known to be any sort of miracle cure for addiction. Treatment programs for substance abuse are generally composed of several components. 

    The most effective type of treatment for drug and alcohol addiction is inpatient treatment. This is a type of residential care that offers 24-hour supervision and support for people in sobriety. 

    Inpatient treatment programs may offer traditional forms of treatment for addiction, such as behavioral therapy, as well as alternative therapies such as yoga, mindfulness training, and adventure therapy. 

    Engaging in physical activity can be a supportive strategy for people in early sobriety and throughout their recovery journey. However, most doctors will recommend that exercise be used as a supplemental form of treatment, in addition to evidence-based treatments. 

    When Is Exercise Encouraged In Addiction Recovery?

    Physical exercise is recommended for most everyone, as an important component of a healthy lifestyle. However, it’s important to check in with a medical doctor to determine whether engaging in exercise is a healthy option for you. 

    For some people in early addiction recovery, engaging in gentle forms of exercise may be more helpful than participating in something more intensive. While rigorous forms of exercise—such as running—may be beneficial for some, others may need to reintroduce exercise more gradually. 

    Within a drug rehab program, a physician may look to your medical history, any current medical concerns, and take into account other factors related to your former drug use in order to personalize treatment recommendations that are right for you. 

    Moving your body in ways that strengthen your body or bring joy can be a supportive strategy for maintaining sobriety, especially within the early months of recovery. The long-term benefits of exercise for addiction recovery are not as well-known, in part because a person’s recovery can be influenced by a variety of factors unrelated to physical movement and exercise.

    Most drug and alcohol treatment centers have a medical doctor onsite to regularly monitor physical health. In addition, some rehab centers may also offer recreational therapy services and have fitness professionals on staff to help patients form an exercise plan that can be helpful to their recovery.

    If you or a loved one is interested in incorporating exercise within your treatment plan, consider searching for a rehab center or addiction treatment provider that offers fitness services, recreational therapy, and other movement therapies within their treatment programs.

    Finding The Right Treatment For You

    There’s no single form of treatment that works for everyone. Exercise can be helpful for many people who are recovering from addiction, but its usefulness may also vary. 

    The best way to figure out what may be most helpful for you or a loved one in early recovery is to search for a treatment program that offers a wide range of traditional and movement therapies. Recovery is a lifelong journey that may be supported by a variety of medical, behavioral, and movement-based strategies. 

    Exercise can be a valuable asset in the journey towards building a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling future in recovery from addiction. 

    Listen to your body and be mindful of your limitations. It can take time to regain the strength and energy necessary to devote to certain types of exercise. This is normal. Be compassionate with yourself. The only way out is through, and that journey begins with a single step.

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.
    Article Sources

    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators 2018 NSDUH Report
    U.S. National Library of Medicine - A Narrative Review of Yoga and Mindfulness as Complementary Therapies for Addiction
    U.S. National Library of Medicine - Impact of Physical Exercise on Substance Use Disorders
    U.S. News: Health - The Benefits of Regular Exercise in Recovery

    Medically Reviewed by
    Kimberly Langdon M.D.
    on May 25, 2022
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