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Using Exercise in Addiction Treatment by Constance Ray

Addiction is a significant issue in the United States. Nearly 40 million Americans age 12 and over are addicted to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs, and another 80 million are considered "risky substance users.” While therapy and rehab are standard treatment options, exercise is a great supplemental option that can be combined with more traditional methods to help individuals fight addiction and stay clean.

How Exercise Alters the Brain

For starters, exercise acts as a distraction. Instead of an addict thinking about accessing drugs or alcohol, he or she focuses on keeping the yoga pose or completing 10 more reps of crunches. It also reduces withdrawal symptoms and fights stress. Stress is a factor in the development of addiction, as well as the relapse of recovering addicts.

The brain and body crave the addiction when it’s stopped because they want the endorphins that created the “high” feeling. Withdrawal symptoms and daily life can add stress to someone in recovery, which only worsens cravings, making the road to recovery rough. Exercises, such as yoga, release dopamine, just as drugs and alcohol do. Instead of relying on an unhealthy habit for this feeling, the body gets it through exercise.

Exercise Alters Mood and Relationships Too

Once a person gets in the exercise groove, it motivates him or her in other areas of life. Confidence, mental stamina, and energy levels increase, which can help a recovering addict stick to a recovery plan. Working out also increases self-control, so an individual can think more clearly and reasonably, which is an important tool in battling addiction.

A recovering addict may end relationships with friends who are still using, which is good because it prevents triggers. However, a supportive network of friends is a necessary part of the recovery process. Through exercise, the individual can forge new friendships with people who share more healthy interests. For example, he or she may meet new friends at a yoga session or on the treadmill at the gym.


Yoga decreases the brain’s response to stress and increases its ability to cope with difficult situations. A recovering addict can use yoga to remain calm despite feelings of withdrawal or cravings. Yoga can even mimic the rush of dopamine that occurs with using drug or alcohol. In addition, some breathing techniques and poses release endorphins, so the body gets the pleasure response it craves in a more healthy way.

The 12-step program is popular in many rehab programs, as well as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. The 11th step is to use prayer and meditation to connect with a higher power. To some people, this means attending a religious gathering like church, but others find a more inner spirituality, and one way to do this is through yoga. Most people who do yoga regularly feel more in control of their emotions and bodies and develop an appreciation for their minds and bodies. They also develop more confidence, helping them to realize they’re strong enough to resist cravings.


Exercise, such as swimming, releases endorphins that reduce stress levels. But swimming has its own extra mood-boosting capabilities as well. The amount of sensory information that overwhelms a person’s body is dulled when he or she is submerged in water. This induces feelings of calmness and tranquility.

Swimming is also a great option because almost anyone can partake in swimming. Even if a person has never exercised, he or she can take up swimming. It’s even safe for the elderly and pregnant women. The individual controls the pace and intensity of each session.

Other Options

There are many other exercises that a recovering addict can use as part of a treatment plan, such as biking, running, and hiking. Exercising with your dog is another great option. Doing so intensifies the benefits and being around your dog will also increase endorphins and reduce stress levels. Dogs also motivate people to actually get moving. In fact, people with dogs are 34 percent more likely to exercise. A dog’s positive attitude rubs off on his or her owner as well, so they have an emotional boosting benefit too. In addition to spending time with a furry friend, take up an activity that can be done no matter where you are -- meditation. Mindfulness meditation can help you to focus on the present, and let go of what is causing your suffering. It is a great way to refocus your thoughts, and serves as a healthy coping mechanism for any stress you are feeling.

Regardless of which exercise is chosen, the positive changes will help aid in the recovery process and help the individual to remain free from addiction. While exercise isn’t a cure for addiction, it can be used in combination with other methods. Exercise can help recovering addicts get healthy and get their lives back in order.


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