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Why You Should Exercise During Addiction Recovery

Exercise plays a critical role in the health of both body and mind. As a society, we’re exercising less and the effects can be clearly seen in our collective physical state. However less noticed and understood is how exercise affects the brain. Exercising does not have to be an incredibly difficult nor does it need to be monotonous, but its effects are profound, especially in those recovering from substance abuse or addiction. So, let’s drive into why exercise is so important for the recovering addict:

  1. Exercise a stress buster and stress is a sobriety buster. Stress is a natural and normal part of everyday life. However, modern lifestyles put such pressure on our bodies and minds that we can easily lose control. Everyone reacts differently to stress, but a common theme is that exercise reduces stress. As we reduce stress, we receive both physical and psychological benefits. First, the fight or flight response created during stressful situations can cause our bodies to tense up causing serious long-term effects. Further, prolonged stress leads to the overproduction of cortisol, a hormone that can cause both physical and psychological effects. Cortisol regulates blood sugar, metabolism, inflammation, memory and more. Imbalances can lead to a multitude of problems – even depression and anxiety. Finally, exercise promotes the production of endorphins that are natural painkillers and can lift our mood.
  2. Exercise can also help us sleep better. Getting the appropriate amount of sleep is a necessity for any of us as humans, regardless of whether we are in recovery or not. Sleep is restorative and a lack thereof can have profound consequences on the psyche. Lack of sleep not only makes us tired during the day, less productive and generally grumpier, but it also means we cannot fully appreciate the good that is around us, often obsessing over the negatives in our lives. Having enough sleep helps us conquer our doubts and concerns and ward off depression, as we continue the lifelong journey of recovery.
  3. Proper exercise also has a long-term protective benefit to our bodies. As we get older, exercise is important to maintain muscle mass, bone health, cardiovascular health and more. Many of those in recovery relapse because of a medical situation that requires them to take certain drugs that may become addictive.– Usually in the form of pain medication. Prioritizing our physical health can avoid an impossible choice down the road.
  4. Setting and hitting goals is one of the cornerstones of successful recovery and long-term sobriety. We may measure our sobriety in days, months or even years, but it is something that we cannot take for granted. The temptations of relapse are always present. In recovery, it is important to create interim, attainable goals with the ultimate goal of staying clean for the rest of our lives. Exercise promotes this healthy thinking as we see progress in our abilities – how far we can run, how much weight we can lift, etc. Aligning our exercise goals with our recovery goals can make for a positive and self-fulfilling situation.
  5. Exercise has structural benefits to the brain. A 2015 study1 showed that those engaged in regular exercise of an “overlearned” skill showed improved integrity of white matter in the brain. Those who did not participate (life as usual) showed deterioration in brain connectivity.

Ultimately the benefits of exercise affect every part of our lives from the physical to the psychological and emotional. While it is only one part of the lifelong recovery process, it represents a very real protection from drug use and relapse. And while many think that exercise needs to be difficult and take lots of time, calming and relaxing activities such as yoga, walking the dog or cleaning the house are all just fine as well.