People who regularly take part in aerobic exercise have decreased risks for a broad range of serious physical health problems. Current evidence indicates that an active lifestyle also decreases the odds of developing serious problems with drugs or alcohol. In addition, a regular fitness routine can play an important supportive role in successful addiction treatment and long-term recovery.

Aerobic Exercise and the Brain

Aerobic exercise is the term for any physical activity that leads to significant increases in normal breathing and heart rate. The chief effect of these increases is a boost in the amount of oxygen circulating in the bloodstream. This oxygen feeds organs and tissues throughout the body, including the muscles and brain.

Exercise has several positive effects on everyday brain function[i]. First, it increases the level of activity in an area called the pleasure center. In turn, increased activity in the pleasure center leads to a general uplift in mood. Additional brain-related benefits of exercise include:

  • An improved rate of repair in the nerve cells (called neurons) that form the core of the brain’s communications network
  • Encouragement of the formation of additional neurons in the brain areas responsible for forming memories
  • Improvements in neuron-to-neuron communication
  • Increased production of the blood vessels that channel oxygen to the brain

In addition, participation in regular aerobic exercise alters the body’s hormone output and improves the ability to handle periods of stress.

Exercise and Substance Abuse Prevention

There are important connections between the brain/body benefits of aerobic exercise and a reduced chance of developing substance problems. Studies show that people who get regular exercise tend to have better baseline control over their consumption of both drugs and alcohol[ii]. In addition, people with established fitness routines have reduced chances of developing a diagnosable substance use disorder (substance abuse and/or substance addiction).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that physical activity may be especially helpful for teenagers as a form of substance abuse prevention. Part of this benefit derives from the effects exercise has on normal brain and body function. What’s more, by challenging themselves through exercise, teens may simply have less time to devote to substance use and other unhealthy activities.

Can People in Substance Treatment Tolerate Exercise?

People enrolled in substance treatment face a range of mental and physical challenges, including the withdrawal process associated with detoxification. This reality raises a question. Can people in drug or alcohol treatment tolerate the stresses that come with beginning a new exercise routine?

A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine addresses this very point. Specifically, the authors of this study looked at what happens to the health of people in residential treatment for methamphetamine addiction when they start exercising regularly[iii]. They concluded that, after eight weeks of aerobic exercise and strength training, the participants under their observation significantly improved in terms of aerobic health, endurance levels, strength levels and muscle-to-fat ratios. The researchers categorized the participants’ response to exercise as “excellent.”

Contribution to Alcohol-Related Treatment

Several studies show that participation in regular aerobic exercise can have important benefits for people in treatment for alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Examples of these benefits include:

  • A reduced craving for alcohol
  • A decline in the number of relapse events during treatment
  • An increased rate of successful abstinence during treatment

Exercise can also lead to emotional/psychological changes that support treatment efforts. These changes include such things as:

  • Sleep improvements
  • Reduced levels of stress and anxiety
  • Reduced levels of depression
  • An improved sense of self-control

Contribution to Drug-Related Treatment

People enrolled in drug- and medication-related addiction treatment also benefit from exercise in several ways. Specific areas of improvement include:

  • A reduced craving for substance use
  • An increase in the number of people who maintain abstinence throughout treatment
  • An increase in the consecutive number of days that people in treatment maintain abstinence

The emotional/psychological benefits of exercise found in people going through alcohol treatment also apply to people in drug/medication treatment.

Why Does Exercise Help?

No one knows for sure why exercise helps people recover from substance addiction. However, researchers have proposed a number of possible explanations. Chief among these explanations is the potential of regular physical activity to limit the intensity of drug and alcohol cravings, which arise during withdrawal/detox and can remain a major negative force throughout the treatment process.

Other potential explanations for the positive effects of exercise include:

  • The changes in basic brain chemistry produced by regular physical activity
  • The ability of exercise to create a new, healthy source of pleasure for people in treatment
  • The ability of exercise to contribute to general mood improvement in people going through treatment
  • The ability of exercise to reduce feelings of depression
  • The ability of exercise to reduce feelings of anxiousness
  • The ability of exercise to reduce the negative impact of daily stress
  • The ability of exercise to contribute to a sense of self-determination and self-control
  • The ability of exercise to serve as a coping mechanism for dealing with the ups and downs of substance treatment

In addition, people in treatment who exercise in groups may gain a benefit from forging healthy connections to others.

Making Exercise a Part of Treatment

Researchers will need to do more work before anyone fully understands the benefits of exercise for people in substance treatment. However, it’s clear that those benefits exist. At Transformations Treatment Center, we understand the importance of physical activity as a supporting factor in addiction recovery. In line with this understanding, we make sure that our clients have plenty of opportunities to exercise and make recreation part of their overall treatment plan.

Whether you or your loved one require inpatient treatment or outpatient treatment, our individualized approach to quality care is designed to promote all aspects of the recovery process and maximize the chances of short- and long-term success.

[i] National Institute on Drug Abuse: Physical Activity May Prevent Substance Abuse

[ii] The Scientific World Journal: Exercise and Physical Activity in the Therapy of Substance Use Disorders

[iii] Journal of Addiction Medicine: Eight Weeks of Exercise Training Improves Fitness Measures in Methamphetamine-Dependent Individuals in Residential Treatment

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  • Lynn Smythe

    a freelance writer specializing in healthcare, addiction treatment, behavioral health and health and wellness.

    Lynn Smythe is a freelance content writer and communications consultant specializing in healthcare, addiction treatment, behavioral health and health and wellness. Her work has appeared on many online sites and in magazines, and other print publications, including Thrive Global, VeggieLife, BackHome, The Herb Quarterly, The Old Farmer's Almanac, Llewellyn's Herbal Almanac, The Crafts Report, Beadwork, Jewelry Crafts and Lapidary Journal. She also covers a variety of lifestyle and outdoor activity topics on her two hobby blogs; The Creative Cottage and Sloth Athletica. When she's not busy researching topics and writing articles, she enjoys swimming, biking, running, standup paddle boarding and training for long distance endurance events to support her favorite non-profit charity organizations.