Getting sober is difficult, but dealing with symptoms of post-acute withdrawal—irritability, insomnia, anxiety, and depression, to name a few—can be the most challenging.

A key to relapse prevention is learning how to deal with stressful emotional triggers, and exercise is often recommended in recovery programs. Exercise can be beneficial in getting your heart pumping and momentarily making you forget your craving; however, it also offers a host of positive brain chemistry changes that can mimic the high you felt while using.

Many Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

There’s a reason why many substance abuse treatment programs offer not only access to fitness centers, but also a plethora of physical activities, from yoga to ropes climbing and others.

1. Exercise helps fill the time.

The process of finding and using drugs takes up a lot of time. When you quit using, you have all the time in the world, so to speak—and not much practice at figuring out how to fill it. Exercise is a good outlet for spending time as well as releasing pent-up energy.

2. Exercise improves your overall health, which improves your chances at staying sober for the long term.

Exercise not only works the body, but also the mind—in almost innumerable ways. Some studies have shown that adding exercise to substance use disorder treatment strengthens the effects of recovery. It can lead to positive changes that are hard to measure but have been shown to positively affect overall physical and mental health: a sense of accomplishment and increased self-confidence, just to name a few.

3. Exercise boosts feel-good neurochemicals like endorphins and dopamine.

Studies have shown that vigorous exercise, the kind that makes you sweat, can release a slew of feel-good neurotransmitters, namely endorphins and endocannobinoids. These chemicals lead to a feeling of euphoria, as well as a feeling of calm, both of which can help you cope with daily stressors better.

Dopamine plays a large role in addiction psychology. After getting sober, dopamine levels even out or decrease, and many people feel an inability to experience pleasure in normal activities. Exercise can increase dopamine levels, therefore helping you feel more engaged in your day-to-day life. One study from 2011 showed that exercise alone was powerful in helping people stop using many different kinds of drugs, and the researchers hypothesize that this could work by the brain releasing feel-good chemicals, or exercise itself helping to reduce the brain damage caused by substance use.

How to Get Started

Beginning an exercise regimen isn’t easy, but there are some simple guidelines to follow:

  1. Start small. Start with short walks, or quick jogs. Don’t try to go all out the first day, or week, or month (or year!).
  2. Find a workout buddy. It’s much easier to be convinced to go for a walk or jog if you’ve got someone to keep you company—or push you and hold you accountable.
  3. Keep it fun. You’re not going to exercise if it’s a chore—getting sober is work enough. Go for walks, or do some light stretching at home before you join a Crossfit class or 30-for-30 bikram yoga challenge.

Beware of Substituting One Addiction for Another

While positive activities like exercise are helpful in preventing relapse, it’s important to remember that the same neurotransmitters involved in addiction—namely dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin—are also tied to feel-good activities like working out. Beware of substituting one addiction for another. Exercise is good for you, but should be done in moderation.

How Cornerstone Recovery Center Can Help with Your Recovery

Cornerstone Recovery Center provides addiction recovery treatment with relapse prevention services including gym membership and other holistic activities. With a diverse staff of therapists and addiction professionals, our substance abuse treatment programs treat every client with an individualized plan. If you or a loved one needs help for addiction, please contact our admissions counselor online or call 1-888-711-0354 today. All communications with our staff are confidential.