Imagine that you discovered a new pill for people in addiction recovery. This pill helps them abstain from substance use, improves their mental health, and helps rebalance their brain chemistry. Not only does this pill have no negative side effects, it actually has positive side effects (improving their health and well-being). On top of all that, it’s completely free!
As you’ve probably guessed, this “pill” is physical exercise — read on to find out how it can help you if you’re in addiction recovery.
Acute withdrawal effects begin as soon as you start your opioid recovery. Depending on the substance you’ve used and your history with it, effects may last for several weeks. Physical withdrawal symptoms can include:
Meanwhile, psychological symptoms can occur, and they include:
People often relapse during this withdrawal period because they want to relieve these unpleasant symptoms. And this vulnerable area is where exercise comes in.
Exercise has been shown to reduce the withdrawal symptoms associated with addictive substances, which help reduce the risk of relapse. After all, if withdrawal feels less unpleasant, you won’t feel the need to use opioids as badly. Exercise can also help with restless leg syndrome, a common withdrawal effect of opioids.
Most scientists now agree that addiction is not a moral issue or a failure of willpower, but a result of differences in the brain. Some people appear to have a brain chemistry that is more prone to addiction, and so part of the recovery process is to bring this chemistry back into line. According to Runner’s World, exercise can do this by rebalancing the levels of glutamine and dopamine in the brain — two chemicals which drugs like opioids throw out of order by substances of abuse. Exercise also increases “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF) levels. BDNF is a protein that helps your brain grow new brain cells, and it’s involved in learning and memory — two functions which long-term opioid use can impair.
Substance abuse and mental health disorders often occur together, in what’s called a “co-occurring disorder.” There is a downward spiral here, because substance abuse can cause mental health problems like depression and anxiety — and people return to substances to try to mask the emotional pain caused by mental illness. Exercise is a way you can break this cycle and start repairing the damage. Exercise reduces symptoms of a range of disorders, including depression, stress, anxiety, and negative moods.
It also improves confidence and self-esteem — two qualities that many people in addiction recovery might lack (if they’re instead affected by guilt and self-doubt). Physical exercise also improves sleep quality, which is important since opioid use and addiction can wreak havoc with sleep cycles.
How do you know which workout is best for you? Light aerobic exercise is a great place to start. It’s important not to overdo it, especially if you haven’t exercised for a long time. Very Well Fit has a great guide on how to start a walking routine.
Once you can manage around 150 minutes of brisk walking each week, you can try stepping up to light jogging, cycling, rowing, or weight training. Sports are also fantastic forms of exercise for people in recovery. Research shows that participation in sports reduces the risk of substance use. This reduction is probably due to the social relationships and belonging that sports can provide, alongside the exercise’s physical effect. Remember to eat a healthy diet and insure you take plenty of relaxation, so that you can recover from your exercise and not feel burned out.
Of course, the difficult part of the exercise “pill” is the exercise itself. Most people find that getting started is the hardest part. But if you start with a simple walking routine and build up from there, you’ll be up and running in no time— literally!