In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse released the results of a study on the effects of physical activity on cocaine-addicted rats. The animals were put on a forced abstinence from the drug, but were given access to an exercise wheel. The researchers found that the more time the rats spent on that wheel, the less they craved cocaine. This was still true even when they were given access to cocaine again. In another study, methamphetamine-addicted rats that exercised not only received the benefits of newly released endorphins, but the activity actually helped reverse some of the brain damage caused by heavy drug use.
There have been encouraging results in human studies too. One conducted by doctors in Denmark showed that if a person works out for at least two hours a week, they are 30 to 40 percent less likely to be diagnosed with an alcohol-use disorder when compared to people who spend their time on the couch instead. Meanwhile, a 2011 Vanderbilt University study on the effects of exercise on human patients who used marijuana heavily had similar results. With just 30 minutes a day on a treadmill, the subjects found that their cravings, and eventually their use, lessened significantly. And these were patients who relied on no other treatment methods to curtail their dependency at the time. Just exercise.
Clearly, there is a correlation between exercise and recovery. Whenever we exercise — whether we’re recovering from addiction or not — our brains benefit. This is because workouts release endorphins like dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical, and gelanin, which reduces the cravings we experience when we’re under stress. These chemicals keep people happy, treating anxiety, depression and other mental health issues naturally, and with enough time and work, it can even lessen some of the neurological damage caused by addiction. So it should come as no surprise that many rehabilitation centers offer yoga, tai chi, zumba and other physical activities as part of their treatment programs. It’s a perfect way to help patients take their minds off of cravings while easing their withdrawal symptoms.
But exercise also has plenty of advantages that can’t be measured by scientific research.
Building community is one of the most vital steps in the recovery process; it starts in rehab with group therapy sessions, and it continues long after inpatient treatment is completed. This is why joining AA or other support groups is so vital; the more people we can turn to when times get tough, the better our chances of staying on the right path. Whether we find a running buddy or join a team sport, this is an opportunity to build a bigger network of positive reinforcement. Today, there are even sober-living communities across the country that are built around running, climbing, swimming and even hiking and camping — and they offer friendship, strength and comfort in a temptation-free setting.
When an addict leaves rehab, they also lose a regimented system of set schedules with therapy, meetings and meals timed for every hour of the day. Exercise is a good way to find this structure again. It gives us a goal to work toward (a 10-minute mile, a league championship) and it gives us rules to follow. The more time we spend exercising, the less time we have to dwell on the stresses that may have led us to addiction in the first place. This kind of discipline also provides an important — and healthy — distraction.
Another great thing about exercise is it’s a treatment option everyone can afford. An expensive yoga class may be out of our budget, but it doesn’t take much more than a good pair of shoes to take up jogging, and there are plenty of other options out there that are equally inexpensive. If we do a little digging, we can all find something in our price range.
When we seek recovery, we have to train our brains to seek gratification elsewhere. Addicts learn to rely on drugs and alcohol to cure difficult feelings such as anxiety and depression. Exercise is a way to harmlessly treat those same issues, without destroying our bodies, brains, relationships and careers. But we still need to be careful that we’re not replacing one addiction with another. Too much of anything, no matter how good it is in theory, is never good. Exercise is an important tool for changing our lives for the better. It’s not another excuse to self-medicate.
Step Up for Recovery: Get Active And Support Local Addiction Treatment Services
On Nov. 6, PEER Services of Evanston, a community-based provider of substance abuse prevention and treatment services, is holding their second annual charity stair climb, called Step Up for Recovery. The purpose of the climb is to support two of the organization’s goals: to stop the stigma of recovery and support those in recovery; and to fund need-based addiction treatment scholarships. The climb will take place at Orrington Plaza (1603 Orrington, Evanston) and is open to all ages. Register and fundraise for the climb here.
About the Author
Candice Rasa, LCSW, is Clinical Director of Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, Florida. She has more than 10 years experience in the mental health and substance-abuse arena, and supports healing in the clients she serves from a perspective of spirituality and alternative Eastern methods.
More from Make It Better: