Recovering from an addiction is far more complex than just stopping the habit and showing up to counseling. You need to give yourself the tools to cope with withdrawal and for the hole in your life left behind by your habit. Exercise, with its myriad mental health benefits and its potential for an immediate feel-good rush, is amongst the best of these tools.
How Does Fitness Help?
There are several ways in which physical fitness can help when recovering from an addiction. The most obvious one is that intense exercise can create a “high” that can act as a healthy substitute for the high from a drug. According to Shape, you are more likely to experience this after endurance aerobic exercise— that is why we most commonly associate the sensation with running.
However, there are more subtle ways in which exercise can help with addiction. In particular, it can effectively target many of the common triggers that lead people to relapse:
- Stress – Your body responds to both physical and mental stress with the production of cortisol, which is what makes you feel anxious. By placing your body under small amounts of physical stress through regular exercise, your system develops a resistance and starts producing less cortisol.
- Tiredness – According to the New York Times, there is scientific evidence that moderate-intensity exercise can decrease fatigue. Interestingly, the reason why is unclear.
- Loneliness – Group classes or working out with a gym buddy provide much-needed social interaction, which can counter the sensations of isolation associated with addiction recovery.
- Depression – There is an extremely high level of comorbidity between depression and substance abuse, and exercise has been shown to help with symptoms of depression.
Taking care of your mental health is crucial to recovery, and exercise is just one of the ways to help. You should also look into alternative forms of self-care, such as relaxing hobbies and spending time outdoors, as well as traditional treatments like therapy and medication.
The Best Types of Exercise for Recovery
The key when choosing an exercise— or a few — is to go for something that feels challenging, but enjoyable. You should love the exercise you do, but it should also get your heart rate going. With that said, there are a few workouts that are particularly beneficial.
- Rock Climbing – As well as being a great strength workout, recent research has shown that the self-efficacy and immediate sense of achievement associated with climbing and bouldering can help alleviate the symptoms of depression.
- Weight Training – Resistance training has been shown to reduce anxiety and also has the benefit of it being very easy to track your progress. Seeing the numbers on your weight plates increase can bring a huge hit of self-esteem, which keeps you motivated.
- Cardio Workouts – This can be walking, running, cycling, dancing, or dropping into your gym’s step class. Cardio workouts are the most likely to trigger an exercise high.
- Yoga – Regular yoga practice teaches you to develop a connection with your body, giving you a sense of control. It is a form of meditation, and is a great stress reliever.
The Importance of Routine
Whatever form of exercise you choose, the most important thing is that you incorporate it fully into a routine. The consistency and dependability of a healthy routine are extremely beneficial to those recovering from chaotic lives fueled by addiction. It is the way to create new habits and avoid temptation through idleness or boredom.
However, exercise is just one part of this. You will also need to improve your diet, give yourself time for hobbies and socialization, and get plenty of sleep. Once you combine all of these into a prescribed schedule, you will find you have little time in the day to think about drugs or alcohol.
In many ways, exercise simply gives you something to do. In a situation where many feel powerless, physical fitness can give a sense of purpose, control, and agency. It is a physical demonstration of your decision to get better, and it is incredibly powerful. When you combine this with its many mental health benefits, you can begin to understand why exercise is invaluable to the recovery process.
Article by Sarah Treadway at RehabHolistics.com