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Can Exercise Help With Addiction? The Benefits for Sustainable Recovery

Exercise is an activity that can have a positive impact on our body, mind, and spirit. Even though exercise can sometimes feel tiring, once the endorphins kick in and we see some progress, the results are uplifting. We can use these benefits to our advantage, especially when going through personal challenges.

It is not surprising that exercise has found its way into addiction rehab programs. When fighting your way back from addiction, exercise can aid you in seeing your accomplishments more clearly and incrementally marking the progress you’ve made towards recovery goals. Understanding how exercise can help with addiction recovery may assist you in making critical decisions regarding your healing journey.

How Can Exercise Help With Addiction Recovery?

While the physical benefits of exercise are indisputable, the implications for a body damaged by addiction cannot be overstated. Body tissues and systems stressed by a chronic illness such as addiction may not have the strength necessary for a full recovery. Targeted exercise and focused nutrition can help the body to rebuild and to heal itself.

Substance abuse subjects the body to toxic chemicals, but it also often results in neglect—lack of proper nutrition, restorative sleep, and healthy physical activity. Purposeful exercise, starting slowly and with expert guidance, can begin early in the recovery process. The increased heart rate and circulation that comes with cardio exercise can bring cleansing oxygen and nutrients to cells while transporting wastes and toxins for removal. 

Physical exercise may also help decrease cravings and lessen withdrawal symptoms. To take advantage of the benefits of exercise while safely managing the early stages of recovery, it is best to participate in a supervised exercise program rather than trying to do it on your own. In this way, you will have the support of addiction medicine professionals to ensure that you exercise safely to gain the benefits without added risks. 

Exercise Has Positive Effects on the Brain

When addiction occurs, the brain’s reward center is “hijacked” by exposure to a substance that overstimulates its neural pathways, creating a sense of euphoria. With repeated use, the reward center becomes desensitized or tolerant, relying on more and more of the substance to achieve the same pleasurable effect. A dependence is created, as only through repeated substance use can the brain’s reward center be satisfied. 

Addiction also appears to alter cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt and change our behavior as circumstances demand. This could partly explain continued drug-seeking behavior in spite of the extremely negative consequences. This loss of control may further contribute to the chronic and relapsing nature of addiction.

The good news is that these negative neuroplastic changes can be overcome by training the brain to create new pathways that detour around those formed by addiction. Physical activity directly affects the brain, beyond the increase in circulation and oxygen delivery to brain tissue. Exercise contributes to neurogenesis, the formation of new neurons, and new neural connections. Neurogenesis in the hippocampus promotes improved cognitive flexibility. As part of a comprehensive rehab program that includes counseling and evidence-based behavioral therapies, exercise-mediated neuroplasticity helps the brain to reshape itself and recover more completely.

How Can Exercise Help to Sustain Recovery?

In addition to the benefits to our body and our brain, exercise can help us learn to find pleasure in healthy lifestyle choices and supportive social interactions. By reprogramming our brain’s reward center to appreciate things long sidelined by addiction, we can find pleasure in sober living and substantially improve our quality of life.

Christopher Bergland, author of the book The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, asserts that we can make ourselves happier through exercise. He explains how naturally-occurring neurochemicals can boost our mood and contribute to feelings of happiness. He outlines the significance of several neurochemicals released during physical activity and explains how each contributes to the feel-good power of exercise. They include:

Since many of these endogenous (made in the body) neurochemicals have effects that are similar to opiates, they relieve pain and enhance mood safely and naturally. When exercise becomes an ongoing part of your recovery routine, these neurochemicals help to reinforce a positive outlook and sustain you through tough times.

Gaining Benefits from Exercise during Recovery 

To harness the full power of exercise in your recovery, look for a rehab center that understands its potential and values its inclusion in a comprehensive treatment program. When used in conjunction with behavioral therapies and counseling, exercise can strengthen the mind-body connection and enhance the effectiveness of treatment. Exercise promotes positive thinking and encourages participation, thereby fostering sustainable lifestyle choices that continue to provide benefit even after treatment has been completed.

Participation in a recovery community that promotes the healing capacity of exercise has the additional benefit of creating camaraderie and sustaining a mutually supportive, social environment. The importance of relationships for long-term recovery is well-established. It is at the root of many recovery support groups.

The chronic nature of addiction requires strong tools in your post-treatment toolbox. Exercise is a versatile tool with benefits for the body, mind, and spirit; it can be practiced alone or with friends. The fact that exercise makes us feel good means it can become a self-sustaining habit with multiple benefits for your present and future health. Incorporating exercise into your recovery is an investment in yourself and a leg up for your long-term success.

If you have been wondering if exercise can help with addiction, it’s time to speak to the addiction specialists at New Choices Treatment Centers. With a full understanding of the role exercise can play in addiction recovery, they can help you make the best decision for your needs. Reach out today or call (726) 888-7003 to get started.