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Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Can Exercise Be a Treatment Tool in Substance Use Recovery?

Exercise is widely recognized as a tool linked to physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. Working out and physical activity seems to be everywhere we look -- whether an ad for a new gym while scrolling on social media, seeing a group of runners while driving to work, or even reading research articles.

It’s clear that exercise has its benefits, but what role does exercise have in substance use recovery? 


As an individual bravely enters into their recovery journey, their body is adjusting and navigating itself to a life without alcohol or other drugs. While these adjustments are extremely beneficial (and even life-saving) in the long term, it is not an easy or comfortable transition. It is common to experience increased feelings of stress and anxiety, difficulty sleeping or eating, fatigue and low energy, relational concerns, and self-esteem issues. 


A variety of treatment modalities and approaches are used in the recovery journey, and many will be individualized to your unique needs. Exercise and physical activity can be one of these tools to aid in the process of maintaining sobriety. In addition to having proven effects as a complementary treatment to substance use recovery, engaging in a regular exercise routine sets the tone for an ongoing healthy lifestyle. 

The Proof is in the Research

Exercise and its role in recovery is a current area of focus for many researchers. There continue to be studies conducted to measure the efficacy of this approach as a complementary treatment option, and more treatment centers are including exercise as an element of their recovery program. 


This study concluded that rats who exercised on a wheel had fewer drug cravings, and suffered less prefrontal cortex damage than the rats who did not exercise. Additional research, including this Danish study, reported on the positive effects that exercise has on those in drug recovery. Benefits included a significant improvement in their quality of life, increased energy, and an overall mood-enhancing effect. In addition to the general quality of life improvement, this 2011 study found that exercise can actually help manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce the risk of relapse. 

The Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

  1. Helps heal your brain: Substance use alters the chemical composition of the brain. Exercise can increase the amount of new nerve connections in the brain, which allows your brain to heal from the damage that has occurred. 

  1. Provides structure: Incorporating exercise into your routine grants you a sense of structure and stability that is so important for the recovery process. This can be implemented by regularly taking an exercise class at your local gym, or even coming up with your own weekly workout plan.

  1. Reduces stress: For many who are in recovery, using substances functioned as a coping mechanism to attempt to escape or deal with life stressors. Eventually, using alcohol and drugs no longer become a stress-reliever, but instead become the cause of stress. Although sobriety does indeed minimize distress, living sober does not equate to a cessation of life stressors. The good news is that exercise is a proven stress-reduction technique. When we engage in physical activity, our brain releases chemicals that sharpen clarity and combat stress. 


  1. Protects your physical health: In addition to the obvious benefit of increasing physical stamina and strength, exercise has been proven to protect our bodies against disease. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion indicates that regular exercise can help prevent:

      • Health Disease
      • Stroke
      • Diabetes
      • Osteoporosis
      • Cancer
      • Depression
  1. Minimizes drug-seeking behavior: Studies have shown that exercise reduces both substance use and cravings for individuals in recovery. Exercise also provides a healthy distraction when cravings do arise. By channeling energy into physical activity, instead of substances, you are focusing on body movement instead of any tempting thoughts or urges. Additionally, exercise naturally stimulates the brain’s reward system, releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. This sends the message that working out is a positive activity!

  1. Strengthens internal and social connection: Exercise provides an outlet to challenge yourself and set healthy goals. Physical activity allows you to work hard to achieve your ambitions, which can translate into increased confidence and self-efficacy. This strengthened sense of self can be helpful in setting and reaching other non-exercise hopes and dreams!  Joining a recreational sports team or attending a group exercise class awards the opportunity to create connections with others. Positive relationships are vital during recovery, and exercising is a great way to meet others and build healthy social connections. 

Fitness at The Haven at Pismo

Exercise can be a healing and beneficial activity to incorporate into the recovery journey. In conjunction with other treatment approaches such as mental health therapy and medical treatment, The Haven offers a holistic approach to the healing and recovery process. Our facility offers fitness amenities, yoga, and outdoor recreational activities to provide you with the best care!