Addiction to drugs and alcohol affects as many as 21 million Americans each year. The clinical term for the diagnosis is “substance use disorder,” and it’s a debilitating condition that, when left untreated, can turn…
Addiction to drugs and alcohol affects as many as 21 million Americans each year. The clinical term for the diagnosis is “substance use disorder,” and it’s a debilitating condition that, when left untreated, can turn into a death sentence. (The daily onslaught of overdose deaths in today’s opiate epidemic is a reminder of that tragic reality.)
But what many people don’t know is that like many common chronic conditions — hypertension, diabetes and depression, for example — substance use disorders are also very treatable. In fact, they respond well to a comprehensive approach that combines medication and therapy with other key components of a healthy recovery lifestyle, such as a nutritional diet and regular exercise.
Most inpatient rehab facilities now regularly integrate exercise into their treatment programs. That’s because the evidence in favor of exercise’s benefits for recovery is overwhelmingly clear: exercise can reduce cravings, improve mood and increase self-confidence, thereby improving the odds of finding lifelong freedom from addiction.
Cravings, or the mental and physical urges and compulsions to drink or use drugs, are a hallmark of addiction. These are strongest during the first few months of abstinence, receding in intensity over time the longer one has been successfully sober. But research now shows that exercise is one way to reduce these cravings — and the substance abuse associated with them — early on.
— Researchers at Vanderbilt found that after 10 30-minute sessions on a treadmill over a two-week period, heavy marijuana users were able to cut their cravings and cannabis use by more than 50 percent.
— Similar results cited by the National Institute on Drug Abuse occurred in two earlier independent experiments (at the University of Minnesota and the University of Virginia) with cocaine-seeking lab rats. When the rats were made to run on an exercise wheel, they exhibited less cocaine-seeking behavior.
— Exercise decreased drug use among methamphetamine, amphetamine and cocaine users in a 2011 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
There are theories as to why exercise reduces cravings and substance abuse. First, exercise lowers levels of a protein in the brain associated with drug cravings. Second, exercise releases “feel-good” endorphins, which are similar to the effects of drinking or using drugs. Whatever the explanation, such findings demonstrate that exercise can reduce both cravings and the drug-use behaviors they often precede.
Exercise also improves mood, which is welcome news for anyone struggling with clinical depression or a case of “the blues” — a very common experience in early recovery that is also a known relapse trigger.
Many people in early recovery suffer from varying degrees of depression because of depleted levels of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, including glutamate, GABA, dopamine and serotonin. The loss of these receptors is a direct physiological consequence of addiction.
Additionally, “dual diagnoses” such as major depression and other mood disorders that cooccur with addiction affect many people in recovery — and in many cases, those disorders may be the root of a substance abuse habit.
However, research shows that vigorous exercise increases the production of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, thereby lifting mood and relieving symptoms of depression. In this way, exercise creates an indispensable buffer from relapse while helping to replenish those positive neurotransmitters.
One of the first things that addiction robs its victims of is a healthy sense of self, which can hurt any efforts at recovery. Regaining self-confidence is therefore an important priority in recovery, and studies suggest that exercise can help in that endeavor. For example, in addition to reducing symptoms of depression, 20 to 40 minutes of daily exercise increased self-esteem in overweight children in a 2009 study at the Medical College of Georgia.
Most importantly, the confidence boost that exercising provides has little or nothing to do with how fast you run, how many miles you swim or whether you’re able to bench 200 pounds. Instead, a budding sense of self-confidence merely requires that you do exercise regularly, according to 2009 findings by researchers at the University of Florida. In other words, the regular act of exercising — not the quality of that performance — is what can improve your self-image.
For people in recovery from addiction, that’s just one more compelling reason to make exercise a regular part of their lifestyle.