Could regular exercise and attending fitness classes help to reduce the risk of addiction relapse? Studies reveal that individuals who engage in regular aerobic exercise are less likely to use and misuse drugs. Recent research has found that exercise is effective at reducing substance use because it produces protective neurobiological effects that help reduce compulsive patterns of drug in-take.
For example, a 2011 study published in “Frontiers in Psychology” found that exercise is similar to how drugs impact the brain’s reward reinforcement circuits and that incorporating exercise into a treatment program can help to reduce the risk of relapse. Additionally, exercise has many positive effects on an individual’s physical and mental health. Staying active improves overall health, builds positive social relationships, keeps the mind occupied (boredom is often a trigger for relapse), and helps to increase confidence.
How Does Exercise Reduce the Risk for Drug Use?
Preliminary research shows a connection between exercise’s ability to naturally trigger the brain’s reward-reinforcement circuit and a decreased risk for drug use. Exercising rats, for example, will self-administer less cocaine than their non-exercising compatriots, according to a 2010 study published in Biological Psychiatry. Exercise produces endorphins, which are the body’s natural “feel good” chemical. Endorphins interact with the brain’s receptors and trigger positive feedback in the body, creating a euphoric effect that is similar to morphine.
Unlike morphine, however, endorphins do not lead to a dangerous addiction or dependence. Known as a “runner’s high”, endorphins support a positive and energizing outlook on life. Additionally, endorphins act as analgesics, diminishing the perception of pain. While exercise itself is not a standalone treatment for addiction, incorporating fitness classes into a comprehensive treatment program may be beneficial for reducing the risk of relapse and supporting long-term sobriety.
How Does Exercise Affect the Mind?
You may already know the important physical benefits exercise provides for the body, including reducing blood pressure and cholesterol and maintaining a healthy weight. But did you know that exercise also has important psychological effects as well? Studies show that exercise reduces anxiety and increases stress resilience. And you don’t have to suffer through a 10-mile run to enjoy these benefits. Both low and medium intensity exercises are linked with a reduction in stress and anxiety because exercise stops neurons from firing in regions of the brain that are connected to the body’s natural stress response.
A review of 24 different studies on the relationship between exercise and self-control found that exercise provides an immediate boost to self-control, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Building self-control is important for resisting drug cravings and avoiding situations with a high risk of relapse.
Exercise helps to reduce boredom, which is a common trigger for relapse. After leaving a treatment center, re-adjusting to daily life can be a challenge, especially for individuals who need to rebuild a new, drug-free life. If you don’t know what to do with your free time, it can be hard to keep the mind occupied – creating new temptations for drug use. Becoming involved with new hobbies and activities, including exercise, keeps the mind active, engaged and focused. Instead of thinking about a drug craving, you can focus on the sights and sounds around you as you participate in a fitness class, go for a run outdoors, or even practice perfecting your golf swing.
One of the challenges for people who are in recovery from addiction is building new, positive relationships with individuals who do not use drugs. Returning to the old patterns and routines they had prior to treatment increases the risk of relapse. On the flip side, attending a fitness class or getting involved with various athletic activities, such as training for a 5K, can help individuals meet new people who do not use drugs. These positive relationships can be a source of motivation and encouragement for staying sober.