One of the most important aspects of addiction treatment is the development of healthy habits to replace the habit of substance abuse. Regular exercise has proven to be one of those healthy habits that can aid both treatment and long-term recovery. There are many reasons that exercise is so effective.
Endorphins are “feel-good” chemicals in the brain. While the body releases endorphins naturally, to combat pain and stress, using synthetic opiates like heroin, or stimulants like cocaine, can also cause endorphin release. The most highly addictive substances can produce an endorphin effect that is far more powerful than the body can produce naturally.
Addiction is the result of the need to chase the ‘high’ provided by the flood of endorphins during substance abuse.
For an individual undergoing treatment for chemical addiction, endorphin levels that are not artificially stimulated through substance abuse can drop substantially. This drop can easily lead to relapse, or otherwise make treatment ineffective, and recovery difficult to sustain.
One way to replace these lost endorphins is with exercise. The body’s natural endorphins are stimulated when the body is under stress from exercise. For runners, this feeling may otherwise be known as the ‘runner’s high.’ This high motivates the athlete to run more often, and maintain a healthy lifestyle to support that habit.
Depression is a reality for many attempting addiction treatment, particularly during the withdrawal stages. Some of that depression is chemical, as the body no longer has access to the same level of endorphins. In other cases, depressed addicts can feel shame, stemming from a lack of control over their lives, or from the effect their habit may have had on friends or loved ones. An addict in treatment may also feel isolation: isolation from friends or activities that made up the environment or community that encouraged and enabled substance abuse.
Relapse is an unfortunate consequence of depression, isolation, and often boredom. Exercise like running, biking, or swimming, can be an effective treatment of depression and method of avoiding relapse. These activities can be done alone, and effectively help pass the time.
Exercise can also provide a different kind of community. That community may be a running or cycling club, or a team in a recreational sports league. An exercise community can provide a new, healthier social outlet to replace the previous, more toxic social environment.
It is well known that low self-esteem can lead to substance abuse. Low self-esteem has also proven to make addiction treatment more difficult, and often leads to relapse. Athletes, meanwhile, and people who exercise regularly, are less likely to abuse drugs in the first place.
People who exercise often experience feelings of accomplishment. These positive feelings lead to greater self-esteem. Greater self-esteem is both an objective in addiction treatment, and an important factor in long-term recovery.
Addiction is often studied using laboratory rats or mice. Numerous experiments have shown that rats with access to a running wheel or some other exercise equipment are less likely to form a chemical dependency. Given the choice of exercise or an addictive substance, these animals often choose exercise.
For rats that had developed a chemical dependency, exercise has been shown to provide an effective replacement for drug-seeking behaviors. Exercise has also been shown to be an effective intervention for relapse.
It is hypothesized that the rats will exercise for the same reasons as humans: health, happiness, and otherwise to pass the time. All of these are reasons that exercise is effective during addiction treatment or recovery in humans.
Types of Exercise
The current research supports that about a half-an-hour of moderate aerobic exercise is all that is necessary to stimulate a positive endorphin response. According to studies evaluated by Nova Southeastern University, low-to-moderate-intensity aerobic exercise both improved mood and psychological functioning. This type of exercise appears to be ideal for an individual struggling with addiction, or attempting to sustain recovery.
High-intensity exercise or competition raises levels of stress and may not be as effective, however, there is less research in this type of exercise.
Any activity that decreases stress, anxiety or irritability should be considered a tool in addiction treatment, or recovery. Consider yoga, meditation, or any of the martial arts as complements to running, biking, or swimming. All of these activities have been shown to improve sleep, and sleep disorders are common among addicts.