Why Physical Fitness Is a Powerful Treatment for People in Recovery

Written by Brad Krause

Imagine you discovered a new pill for people in recovery. This pill helps you abstain from substance use, improves your mental health, and helps rebalance your brain chemistry. Not only does this pill have no negative side effects, it actually has positive side effects, improving your 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 recovery.

Effects on Withdrawal

Acute withdrawal effects begin as soon as you start on the road to recovery, and depending on the substance used and your history with it, they may last for several weeks. Withdrawal symptoms can be physical, such as restlessness, insomnia, or muscle pain, or psychological, such as stress, anxiety, and depression. People often relapse during this withdrawal period because they are trying to relieve these unpleasant symptoms. This 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. Exercise can also help with restless leg syndrome, a common withdrawal effect of opioids.

Effects on the Brain

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. As Runner’s World notes, exercise can do this by rebalancing the levels of glutamine and dopamine in the brain — two chemicals that are thrown out of order by substances of abuse. Exercise also increases BDNF levels — BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein that helps your brain grow new brain cells and is involved in learning and memory — two functions that can be impaired by long-term substance use.

Effects on Mental Health

Substance abuse and mental health disorders often go together. There is a downward spiral here because substance abuse can cause mental health problems like depression and anxiety — and then people turn to substances to try to mask the emotional pain caused by these issues. 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 are often lacking in people in recovery, who may be affected by guilt and self-doubt. Physical exercise also improves sleep quality, which is important because substance use can play havoc with sleep cycles.

What Form of Exercise Is Best?

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 good guide on starting a walking routine here. 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 — as well as the effect of the exercise, this is also probably due to the social relationships and feeling of belonging that sports can provide. Remember to eat a healthy diet and ensure you take plenty of time to relax so that you can recover from your exercise program.

Of course, the difficult part of the exercise “pill” is the exercise itself. However, most people find that getting started is the hard part. If you start with a simple and easy walking routine and build up from there, you’ll be up and running in no time — literally!

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