Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Exercise in Addiction Recovery

The Importance of Exercise In Addiction Recovery

For people struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, the thought of life without a drink or drugs can seem almost impossible. The unfortunate reality is that the majority of individuals seeking help for their addiction problem will not find success for any sustained period of time. While the recovery rate for alcohol and chemical use disorders may be low, there is something that can be done to greatly increase the chances of kicking the habit once and for all. The good news is that the answer will not only help you to stay addiction-free over the long term, but it is inexpensive or free! So what is it?


Have no fear; we are not talking about becoming an ultra-endurance athlete, a pumped up gym rat, or an Olympian. Just the simple inclusion of some physical activity can have a radical impact on your quality of life and chances of sobriety.

How Does It Work?

During active addiction, the drugs and alcohol that a person consumes have a large impact on a complex set of structures in the brain called the limbic system. This part of the brain is largely responsible for creating a person’s feelings and motivations. In short, this system plays a major role in how a person sees the world and subsequently behaves in it.
While substance abuse does warp and alter this brain system, exercise can actually have the opposite effect. A regular exercise routine helps to grow new cells in this area and put the brain in homeostasis. We know that drugs and alcohol impact chemicals in the body including serotonin and dopamine. For someone new in addiction recovery that is trying to rebalance these neurotransmitters, physical activity can help to speed up the process.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms (PAWS)

Prolonged substance abuse creates dependence, and with that comes a period of withdrawal when a person stops using. Some of the physical characteristics include shaking, extremes in body temperature, nausea, and vomiting. In addition to these physical ailments, there are other difficulties that can last from 5-10 days or as long as a year and a half. These are referred to as post-acute withdrawal symptoms or PAWS, and may include insomnia, depression, anxiety, irritability, trouble thinking clearly, and difficulty with coordination. Not only are these feeling uncomfortable, they are particularly dangerous for the recovering addict, as they can be contributing factors for relapse.
The great news is that you can be proactive in your recovery, and by adding exercise to your daily routine, you can have a serious impact on these symptoms. Physical activity, whether it be lifting weights or going for a jog can be used as a safety valve to help vent feelings of agitation and stress. By participating in activities like these, it gives a person time to separate from whatever situation is causing the agitation. This time spent physically moving can be a period to think instead of acting impulsively and potentially dangerously.

New Habits

Most people that are entering recovery did not arrive on a particularly positive note or a winning streak. In most cases, individuals that are newly sober reached this part of their life through a string of harmful consequences and hard times. This can have a negative impact on self-esteem and belief in one’s self.
The good news is that this particular area is one in which exercise can have a direct impact. By setting and reaching small goals with physical activity, a person may start to lay the foundation for winning behavior. Small successes with exercise can help to build confidence and lead to commitment and motivation in other areas of life. As self-efficacy increases, a person can continue to produce positive results as they gain confidence and handle situations as they arise.
When starting down the road to recovery, it is common that people find themselves with an abundance of extra time on their hands. During a person’s drinking or drug using career, the majority of the day was spent thinking about using, actively using, or recovering from using. In sobriety, there are suddenly a large number of hours each day that are unaccounted for. This down time, if not filled with something positive or healthful, can be potentially dangerous for the recovering addict. This extra time is perfect for an individual to start an exercise program. The less time a person spends on the couch thinking about the past, the better.

Where To Start

We know that exercise and being physically active can have a major impact on a person’s chances of staying sober, but where do you begin? The best way to implement a new workout routine is to be honest about where you are starting and have realistic goals. This may be as simple as a ten minute walk around the neighborhood a few times a week or going to play basketball for 20 minutes in the park. Try a few different activities and find one that you enjoy. The more fun that you are having being active, the more likely you are to stick with it.
Initially, being consistent is the most important thing when becoming more active. Stick with your program and give your body time to adjust. Keep your eyes on your goals and be as tenacious about healing yourself as you were about harming yourself. You will be amazed at just how different and wonderful your new life can be.
Of course there is a tendency for many addicts to take it too far. Be wary of exercise addiction. For more information, click HERE

Dr. David Wiss became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) in 2013 and founded Nutrition in Recovery, a group practice of RDNs specializing in treating eating and substance use disorders. In 2017, David received the “Excellence in Practice” award at the National Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. The California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics awarded him the “Emerging Dietetic Leader Award” in 2020. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health in the Community Health Sciences department (with a minor in Health Psychology) by investigating the links between adverse childhood experiences and various mental health outcomes among socially disadvantaged men. His treatment philosophy is based on a biopsychosocial model which incorporates an understanding of biological mechanisms, psychological underpinnings, and contextual factors that integrate the social determinants of health. Wise Mind Nutrition is an app-based interactive treatment program available for download now - https://wisemindnutrition.com/download.

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