The Importance of Exercise & Physical Activity in Recovery

the importance of exercise and physical activity in recovery

When people think of addiction recovery, they usually imagine traditional practices such as behavioral therapy, group counseling, and self-help groups. While these are vital aspects of recovering from substance abuse, there are other less-known practices of equal importance. 

The incorporation of exercise and physical activity into addiction treatment plans has been found to significantly improve long-term outcomes for many recovering addicts and alcoholics. For example, individuals who suffer from addiction experience decreased activity and functionality in certain areas of their brain. Exercise helps to improve this by increasing cognitive performance and brain function.[1,2]

While individuals must attend medical detox and other evidence-based addiction treatment programs, exercise is an important holistic approach to substance abuse recovery. Let’s take a look at the many ways that exercise and physical activity benefits addiction recovery. 

Why is Exercise Beneficial to Addiction Recovery?

When an individual abuses substances, the cravings they experience stem from the brain’s need for “feel good” chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. Because the individual is experiencing an unnatural release of such chemicals, they become addicted to the substance. Upon getting sober, the individual will have to find a new way to experience healthy and natural releases of endorphins. One of the best ways to do this is through exercise and physical activity.

Many benefits of exercise directly improve addiction recovery outcomes, some of these include:[3]

  • Reducing depression and anxiety 
  • Improving cognitive control abilities 
  • Reducing drug cravings
  • Improving physical health and quality of life
  • Promoting better sleeping habits
  • Providing a healthy coping mechanism 
  • Preventing relapse 

Let’s take a look at a few common benefits of remaining active during addiction recovery. 

Prevents Cravings

One of the largest barriers to long-term sobriety is drug cravings. When an individual is in early recovery from addiction, they often experience intense desires to abuse substances – despite desperately wanting to stay sober. Thankfully, exercise has been found as an effective prevention tool for drug cravings. 

In fact, a study from the National Library of Medicine states, “exercise blocks the increase in phosphorylated levels of ERK associated with enhanced cocaine-seeking behavior after a period of abstinence, and decreases reinstatement responding following exposure to drug-associated cues.”[4]

Additionally, exercise can be used as a healthy coping mechanism for individuals struggling with drug cravings. Instead of succumbing to their cravings, individuals can go on a run, ride a bike, or head to the gym. The endorphins released during their workout will provide their brain with the “fix” it is seeking. 

Relieves Stress

Stress is one of the leading causes of relapse for recovering addicts in all stages of sobriety. This is because many individuals began abusing substances to self-medicate feelings of stress or anxiety. Because of this, people in recovery need to find healthy coping mechanisms for stress. 

Because many medications for anxiety disorders have habit-forming qualities, individuals in recovery tend to rely on natural stress-relieving practices. Exercise is one of the best natural stress-relievers known to man, making this extremely beneficial to addiction recovery. When someone exercises, their body releases endorphins. Endorphins are one of the brain’s “feel-good” neurotransmitters, providing natural stress relief. 

Additionally, exercising relieves stress by providing individuals with a distraction. In many ways, exercise is like an active form of meditation. Focusing on one’s body movements and breathing is an essential part of the exercise, similar to mindful meditation practices. 

Improves Sleep

Many recovering addicts have issues with sleep. Whether they are sleeping too much or too little, having a disrupted sleep pattern could contribute to relapse. Thankfully, exercise is fantastic at balancing an individual’s sleeping habits in addiction recovery. 

If someone is struggling with mild insomnia, exercise may expel the extra energy that prevents them from getting a good night’s rest. On the other hand, exercise can provide energy to individuals who have a hard time staying awake. By exercising routinely, individuals increase their energy supply by boosting oxygen circulation in the body. This allows individuals to experience higher levels of energy and teaches their bodies how to use it properly.

Combining Exercise and Therapy for Addiction Recovery

While exercise can prevent cravings, improve one’s overall health, and provide mental balance, individuals recovering from addiction should also attend traditional treatment. Holistic addiction treatment centers combine evidence-based therapies with holistic practices, like exercise therapy. 

Examples of holistic therapy include:

  • Meditation and mindfulness practices
  • Acupuncture and massage therapy
  • Biofeedback and neurofeedback
  • Aromatherapy
  • Equine therapy 
  • Exercise therapy (running, swimming, weight-lifting, etc.)

By combining behavioral therapies, group counseling, addiction education classes, self-help groups, and holistic therapy, individuals receive a solid foundation of recovery for lifelong sobriety. One of the most important aspects of recovery is finding positive coping mechanisms to replace old patterns of substance abuse. The combination of exercise and behavioral therapy helps individuals to brainstorm coping mechanisms that will work for them in addiction recovery and practice them in the real world. 

Attend a Holistic Addiction Treatment Program in New Jersey

If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, it may be time to consider attending a holistic drug rehab program. Moving Mountains Recovery is an addiction treatment program that combines evidence-based addiction treatment practices with natural and holistic approaches. 

Moving Mountains Recovery is an addiction treatment program aimed at changing the lives of individuals struggling with transitioning back to a healthy lifestyle after battling their addiction to substances. We provide them with the motivation necessary to persevere through challenging situations and explore their passion for life.

Contact us today to begin your recovery journey.


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