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Are There Risks to Exercising As a Treatment for Drug Addiction?


Are There Risks to Exercising As a Treatment for Drug Addiction?

In short, yes, a certain amount of risk is always associated with most things we do in life. That doesn’t mean we can’t give ourselves the knowledge to mitigate those risks. We approach our food and nutrition more carefully after dealing with addiction, so how much more effective is exercise and drug treatment? 

This question is asked surprisingly often when addiction recovery is brought up. While the benefits of exercise are many for both general health and healing from addiction, certain factors affect its effectiveness. 

These can include factors that impact the overall likelihood of addiction, behavioral addiction tendencies, the individual’s mental health, their everyday exercise routine, and their history with substance use disorders and other addictive tendencies. 

The benefits of exercise are evident as it helps improve mental focus and physical well-being. However, the combination of training with addiction treatments, the workouts’ level or intensity, and the activities’ timing and duration can all impact recovery.  Whether recovering from eating disorders, alcohol or drug addiction, or other substance abuse, a balance must be maintained with support services. 

Let’s take a closer look at what influences these risks and where they may exist.

Stage of Drug Use

During addiction, the biochemistry in your brain changes depending on your drug use stage.

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The Initiation Stage is the phase between first trying a drug and before addiction takes hold. In this stage, drug use affects the regulation of dopamine within the brain’s reward pathways. However, exercise can also affect this dopaminergic transmission, which has important implications for recovery. Exercising in this stage can help prevent the transition into the drug-dependent phase. 

Exercise and drug addiction recovery go hand in hand. Still, care must be taken that you are not trading one addiction for another and that you are not developing exercise addiction while trying to improve recovery from addiction or another sort. Using the health benefits of exercise intelligently is critical to full and long-lasting recovery. 

During the Drug Dependent stage, characterized by chronic excessive drug overuse, brain adaptations occur, producing less dopamine. The National Library of Medicine noted this in a 2013 study.  Different pathways start getting affected. For example, the glutamatergic signaling pathway and changes in the dopaminergic pathway become dysregulated. A process called neuronal chromatin remodeling also affects gene expression, BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor), which affects the brain’s plasticity and is very involved in addiction during this phase. Exercise affects all of these factors but, in general, is helpful for recovery. 

How much more effective is exercise and drug treatment? Neurological changes occur while undergoing a period of drug Withdrawal or Abstinence, depending on whether it’s early or late within this stage, which can lead to cravings, negative effects, and anhedonia. In the early stages, less activity is seen in the dopaminergic pathway, which may become sensitized over time into the late stage. 

Different changes happen in the brain depending on what type of drug is involved and how far into the withdrawal stage they are. Thus, extra caution must be taken here concerning when exercise routines begin. In this case, starting the routine early into the abstinence phase is best, as starting later can be detrimental to recovery. 

Relapse is more likely to happen after an extended abstinence period and after insufficient clinical services. This is because of the neurological changes that occur over time in the dopaminergic, glutaminergic, and chromatin remodeling processes. In general, though, exercise is a promising means to reduce cravings and relapse. However, some evidence suggests that exercise should be supplemented with other treatments to have any effect at this stage, at least on smoking, although more investigation is needed on the controls for this research.

The field of research is growing on exercise as a treatment for substance abuse, but it looks promising overall. Some factors should be considered when exercising for recovery, which will be elaborated on below.

Psychosocial Influences and Exercising

The National Library of Medicine found that teens and adults who exercise are less likely to engage in illicit drug use, which is especially important in avoiding that initiation stage. However, they also found certain exceptions depending on gender and type of activity. While smoking was found to be lower for adults who did team sports, alcohol, and smokeless tobacco use were elevated. 

Out-of-school mixed-gender sports in adolescents saw higher alcohol use among females (skateboarding, gymnastics, dance), while male-dominated sports (football, wrestling) saw more alcohol use among males. In this case, it is said that there are psychosocial aspects in play, where things like peer pressure may increase the likelihood of alcohol use. 

Where research controlled for psychosocial effects, however, it was shown that exercise did decrease alcohol use and effectively reduced the initial use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs.

Team sports may be an excellent way to build rapport, gain community, and get physical activity. However, some team sports may vary in the level of training achieved, and thus, some sports may be less effective than others. In addition, the psychosocial aspects are an added element of uncertainty. 

At New Choices, we help control this by giving you a community of like-minded individuals with similar goals while having structured programs involving physical activities that will effectively get you to the level of activity needed to aid your recovery. We can help you see how exercise and drug addiction recovery can go hand in hand.

American football match with referee in the background on center line.

Individuality Influences

This mostly concerns genetics and environmental factors, but it also includes the individual traits and unique experiences we all have emotionally too. Biological sex and individual susceptibility to substance abuse will affect results here. Also, it has been noted that adolescents may experience more excellent benefits from exercising as an alternative to drugs than adults, although both groups benefit.

Exercise Level and Intensity

A history of moderate exercise helps prevent later susceptibility to initial drug use. However, a history of high-intensity chronic exercise could actually increase the chances of drug abuse. Since exercise activates some of the same signaling pathways that drugs do in the brain’s reward center, overdoing it could be detrimental and pose a risk of developing an exercise addiction. This is why understanding the exercise and drug addiction connection is essential.

If you had an exercise routine before, it is important to keep up with it. Moderation is key, and your care team can help you prepare a path to it on your journey to recovery and help if you are growing addicted to the gym.

Silhouette of three runners on asphalt running towards sun on horizon against blue sky.

Exercise Combined With Other Addiction Treatments

During recovery from drug addiction, a combination of approaches is better than one. This is especially true during relapse, where it is essential to supplement exercise with other treatments. It was found in a 2008 study by the National Library of Medicine that adding exercise to other treatments enhances recovery, overusing only other treatments or exercise alone. A variety of treatment programs can be found at New Choices, which include and supplement exercise as part of our Active in Recovery (AIR) program.

The Type of Exercise and Drug

Research in 2013 by the National Library of Medicine explored forced exercise compared to voluntary exercise and how it affects recovery and withdrawal symptoms. Both have generally beneficial results for recovery. 

However, some differences were found. For example, forced running led to a higher likelihood of returning to pre-abstinence levels of alcohol use than voluntary running. Medical services alone are often not enough, and patients can benefit from a multi-level approach to treatment with exercise.

The story was different for cocaine and nicotine, though, where forced and voluntary running had the same beneficial effect, with the caveat being a question of how well animal studies can translate into humans. 

More research is definitely needed in this growing field. In this case, it may be best to work on the mindset going into exercise so it doesn’t feel like a chore. Joining a group of like-minded people can help with this, and even make it something fun to look forward to.

As for the intrinsic effects of exercise and drug addiction and different types of exercises themselves, some research found that running helped prevent the initiation of alcohol addiction in women, but for men, running was most effective in preventing cocaine addiction. Suffice to say, a variety of exercise is beneficial in keeping all parts of your body healthy. Crossfit is one way of achieving this variety in a structured manner.

Exercise Timing and Duration

When you start an exercise regimen is very important. For example, if you start early into your period of abstinence, you are more likely to have success, but starting late, say 30 days after you start your abstinence, means that neuroadaptations will have already been undergoing changes that make you more susceptible to detrimental effects if you start your exercise regimen late. Starting late could actually increase cravings.

During the drug-dependent stage, it was found that even acute (short one-off) bouts of exercise decreased smoking. For many other drugs, it was found that regular exercise training lasting between 2 weeks to 6 months helped to reduce drug use during this stage.

The duration of each exercise session affects relapse behavior too. A workout session done for a longer period of time is typically more effective in curbing drug-seeking. For example, a 2-hour session was more effective than a 1-hour session.

Learn the Value of Exercise in Drug Addiction With the New Choices AIR Program

Using exercise as a tool for addiction recovery can be very effective and beneficial if done correctly. Below is a summary of the risks involved in the process, but they can be mitigated:

  • Team sports may increase the chances of alcohol and smokeless tobacco use due to psychosocial factors. A history of chronic high-intensity exercise may exacerbate addiction to drugs. Moderate exercise typically yields better results than prolonged high-intensity exercise.
  • Beginning an exercise regimen during the late stages of abstinence from substances can also lead to increased cravings.

Get Expert Help Today to Manage Exercise and Drug Addiction Processes

There are many benefits of exercise that aid in your recovery from substance abuse, and these benefits mostly outweigh the risks. There are also other non-addiction-related health benefits to increased physical activity, such as improving mood and sleep, relieving stress, and reducing the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. 

With mild to moderate workouts several times a week, physical activity can help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety and speed recovery from drugs, alcohol, or other substance addictions.

If you have questions about the role exercise plays in recovery, the risks of addiction to exercise, how to avoid excessive exercise, signs of addiction, and what you can do to manage your withdrawal symptoms better, we invite you to check us out.

The experts at New Choices can help you find the right balance for your recovery process. Connect with the New Choices Treatment Centers care team today to learn more.

If you are wondering whether Active Recovery is a good choice for you, the addiction specialists at New Choices Treatment Centers are here to help. Contact us with your questions or call (726) 888-7003 to speak to our admissions staff to get started on your recovery journey.