Physical activity can play an important role in recovery from addictions and other co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety. Often, when a person is struggling with both a substance use disorder and another mental illness, it is important to approach recovery from a variety of different angles. Treatment might include a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy for depression or anxiety, rehab for an alcohol or drug addiction, a 12-step program such as AA or NA, and a variety of personal lifestyle changes.
One lifestyle change that can have a significant effect on recovery is physical activity. Staying active can help you move towards recovery and sobriety in a number of different ways.
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- Working out can ease withdrawal symptoms.Physical activity has been shown to reduce withdrawal symptoms in people experiencing alcohol addiction, nicotine addiction, and illicit drug addiction[i].If you are in drug rehab, you might consider asking your psychiatrist or other mental health provider how physical activity can play into your rehabilitation plan as a means of easing the effects of withdrawal.
- Keeping fit can reduce cravings and protect against relapse.Once a person is a little further along in recovery, physical activity can help increase the likelihood of continued abstinence from drugs and alcohol. One of the ways physical activity does this is by impacting hormones in the body that reduce cravings and decrease stress[ii].Exercise has been found to increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. When dopamine levels increase, a person often feels happier and more carefree. For example, consider the feeling of a “runner’s high” during exercise. This sensation is related to increases in dopamine. When dopamine levels increase, a person experiences fewer cravings and less desire for drugs, as the pleasure center of the body has already been satisfied.At the same time, exercise decreases levels of norepinephrine, a hormone that is released when a person is stressed. High levels of norepinephrine are associated with relapse, and exercise can be used to decrease norepinephrine and prevent this effect.
- Being active can help you change your people, places, and things.If you have ever been in treatment for drug addiction or alcoholism, you have probably heard of the importance of changing the people, places, and things in your life that encourage substance use. Physical activity can be a great way to make these changes.When you start a new physical activity, you may find yourself wanting to spend time running or biking or rock-climbing instead of using. New ways of spending time will introduce you to new people and less triggering places. The more you change the patterns in your life to discourage use, the more successful your recovery will be.
- Exercise can significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and insomnia.A wide range of research shows that physical activity decreases depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties. This direct effect on depression and anxiety is important in itself, but lower levels of depression and anxiety can also have an indirect effect on a person’s desire to use. People often use drugs and alcohol to numb away feelings and self-medicate the symptoms of a distressing a mental illness. When distressing symptoms are lessened, many people feel less desire to use.
- Physical activity can increase strengths that protect against addiction and other mental health disorders.Research suggests that exercise can increase “well-being, self-esteem, and self-efficacy under some situations”ii.What do these words mean exactly? Self-efficacy indicates a person’s belief that he or she is able to succeed at something. Self-esteem is the amount of confidence and respect a person holds towards self. Well-being is a general term that indicates how healthy and happy a person feels.<.p>When people have high levels of well-being, self-esteem, and self-efficacy, they are less prone to abuse drugs or alcohol. They are less prone to relapse after periods of sobriety and less likely to turn to drugs in the first place. They are less likely to experience depression, anxiety, and other co-occurring disorders.
What Physical Activity Would Be Right for You?
Depending on where you are in your recovery and what interests you, you might consider a variety of different physical activities.
It could be as simple as walking or running. Or it could be as exciting as rock-climbing or horseback riding.
Get creative. What peaks your interest? What would you stick with? What have you always wanted to do, but never took the time to explore? Physical activity can be more than just a hobby. It can play an integral role in your recovery.
[i] Wang, D., Wang, Y., Wang, Y., Li, R., & Zhou, C. (2014). Impact of physical exercise on substance use disorders: A meta-analysis. PLOS, 9(10).
[ii] Smith, M. A. & Lynch, W.J. (2011). Exercise as a potential treatment for drug abuse: Evidence from preclinical studies. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2(28).