Movement is Medicine: Exercise as Treatment for Addiction


Movement is medicine and perhaps one of the most powerful ones available for quality of life and wellness. Movement is physically beneficial and also mentally.

You may understand in a general sense that exercise is good for you. You may not understand how much it can affect not just things like weight, insulin sensitivity, and heart health but also your emotions and psychological well-being.

Many people find that exercise becomes an integral part of their recovery from addictive behaviors or recovery from addictive drugs. When you incorporate physical fitness and different kinds of activity into your recovery plan, it can help you sustain long-term recovery from illicit drugs or alcohol. 


Movement is Medicine

Before we go more specifically into exercise as a treatment for addiction, the general benefits of being physically active in whatever way works for you include:

  • You can control your weight. Exercise plays a critical role along with diet in helping prevent obesity. Your goal should be to burn more calories than you consume. 
  • Exercising regularly strengthens your heart. There’s more blood flow, so the oxygen levels in your body go up. These effects reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and coronary artery disease. Regular exercise also lowers your blood pressure. 
  • Physical activity that you engage in regularly can lower your blood sugar levels and help insulin work more efficiently, lowering the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. These factors reduce the likelihood of developing many chronic conditions. 
  • When you move your body, it stimulates the release of chemicals and proteins that help improve the function and structure of your brain. As you get more active in your life, you may notice your thinking and learning skills are sharper.
  • Being active strengthens your bone and muscles, helping you reduce bone loss and maintain muscle mass as you get older.
  • Getting just thirty minutes of exercise a day reduces your risk of developing different types of cancer, including breast, colon, uterine, and lung cancers.
  • Your body will release chemicals that improve your mood and help you deal with stress more effectively as you’re exercising. Moving your body regularly can enhance cognitive function and brain functions and reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment as you age. 
  • Fall asleep faster and stay asleep better when incorporating different forms of exercise into your routine and daily life. 
  • When you exercise regularly, it can improve sexual arousal and function in men and women.


Mental Health Benefits of Regular Physical Activity

When you have anxiety, depression, or any mental disorders, exercise can seem like a considerable challenge to incorporate into your day. Once you do it, however, you’re going to see so many benefits of exercising after rehab

Even small amounts of exercise can help you see these benefits and reduce some of the common symptoms of co-occurring disorders. 

Remember, it’s not about being motivated. No one feels motivated to exercise or practice self-care every day. Instead, it’s about developing a routine and a sense of discipline that will carry you through even when you aren’t motivated.

Research shows that exercise can improve your mood and reduce anxiety. Specific benefits of physical activity for your mental health include:

  • When you exercise, it releases endorphins. Endorphins are brain chemicals similar to cannabis. The brain chemicals naturally improve your sense of well-being.
  • Exercise decreases your physical sensitivity to anxiety.
  • Moving your body can promote the growth of new neurons in parts of your brain like the hippocampus. Research shows this can help relieve symptoms of psychiatric disorders.
  • In animal studies, when there’s more neuron growth in the brain, it creates a sense of calm during stressful times.
  • If you have ADHD, exercise and, in particular, cardio may be beneficial for your executive function.
  • Exercise may be as effective as traditional treatments for depression. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why, but they think it could do with reduced inflammation.
  • In people with panic disorder, exercise can help reduce worry and fear, and physical tension. In some research, exercise decreased the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Exercise may help reduce compulsive behavior and break cyclical negative thoughts. 
  • For people with PTSD, exercise may help symptoms including sleep problems, depression, and anxiety.

Why is exercise so mentally beneficial? We’ve talked about a few of the general reasons, and these include:

  • Physical activity decreases stress hormones like cortisol while increasing feel-good chemicals for a natural mood boost.
  • When you’re active, it can distract you from negative thoughts or emotions. Instead, you’re focusing on what you’re doing at the moment.
  • Exercising helps you feel more confident.
  • There can be social aspects to exercising when you do it in a group or even just one other person.


Exercise As Treatment For Addiction

Exercise isn’t in and of itself a treatment for substance use disorders for most people. When we describe exercise as a treatment for drug addiction, we mean that it’s an excellent and often necessary part of a well-rounded substance abuse treatment and addiction recovery plan.

When you use drugs or alcohol, it affects your mind and body. Your body and mind chemistry changes. After you stop using the substances, it’s difficult for your body to readjust and begin to function normally without them. When you add an aerobic activity of moderate intensity like walking, running, yoga, or anything where you’re moving your body into your routine, it can help you combat negative emotions.

Exercise can speed up your body’s ability to heal itself after addiction. Other benefits of exercise for people in recovery in different phases of addiction include:

  • Stress is one of the most significant issues you might face in your recovery. Feeling a lot of stress is also a big reason for relapse. If you can reduce your stress in healthy ways, you’re more likely to sustain your recovery. The effects of exercise help release those-feel good brain chemicals and give you a positive outlet to deal with whatever is coming your way during your recovery. 
  • Sleep problems are one of the major side effects you’re likely to experience early in your recovery. You may find yourself sleeping too much or too little. Exercising will help improve the regular patterns of your sleep, including the quantity and quality.
  • When you use drugs and alcohol, it affects your body’s ability to create the chemicals that make you feel good. You’re likely to experience a low mood because your body doesn’t know how to make these chemicals on its own anymore so that exercising can give you a faster change in mood with less severe withdrawal symptoms. 
  • Guilt and shame are often emotions you may deal with in the early days of recovery. To help heal your self-image as much as your body, think about integrating exercise into your routine.
  • Exercise can be a positive distraction that helps you fill your time and avoid cravings. Rather than turning to substances if you’re feeling a drug or alcohol craving, you can turn to physical activity and the beneficial effects it brings. Having a daily exercise routine can also provide you with structure and routine.

There are so many wonderful types of exercise, and the critical thing to remember is that movement is medicine. Aerobic exercise is great, such as walking or running. Something gentle like yoga or tai chi can be a good starting point, or you might want to try weight training. Strength training is also vital in the recovery process. 

If you’d like to explore the benefits of addiction treatment and recovery, we encourage you to call 855-953-1345 and contact the Opus Health team today.

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