People use drugs for many reasons: to feel good, perform better at work or school, or stop feeling bad. They may also be curious because others are doing it, and they want to fit in. And while drugs (both illicit and prescription) and alcohol provide temporary relief or altered states of consciousness, they come with many negative impacts like physical and mental health decline, strained relationships, legal problems, financial instability, and addiction.
Addiction is a treatable condition. But according to the NIDA, about 40-60% of those who go through treatment relapse within a year. This is due to the chronic nature of the disease and the negative or difficult emotions, mental health issues, triggers, loss of motivation, and even inability to cope.
However, there is hope for recovery and a healthier life through the transformative power of physical fitness. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and other forms of exercise offer a constructive way to address the underlying reasons behind drug use. Instead of using substances to cope with emotions or seek temporary pleasure, you can use fitness as a natural and healthy alternative. There's growing evidence that exercise can be a powerful tool in alcohol and drug recovery.
One study found that incorporating simple workouts like weight training or jogging into addiction treatment improved the chances of recovery from alcohol, cannabis, opioids, and cocaine. Another study on animals found that access to an exercise wheel reduces self-administration of cocaine in cocaine-dependent rats, and regular swimming reduces voluntary morphine consumption in opioid-dependent rats. If these studies are anything to go by, creating healthy habits around exercise could be a game-changer in overcoming addiction.
Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery
Regular exercise can be crucial in your addiction recovery journey, acting as a healthy replacement for drugs and alcohol. While both substances and exercise target the brain's reward center, the key difference lies in the outcomes they produce. Addiction hijacks the brain's natural reward system, leading to detrimental consequences, whereas exercise provides positive and beneficial reward center stimulation. Here's how engaging in regular activity can support you in your addiction recovery:
Exercise Restores Neurochemical Balance
Both drugs and exercise influence the release of dopamine in the brain. However, exercise does not cause the same intense dopamine surges as addictive substances. Regular exercise helps restore a healthier balance of neurotransmitters, reducing cravings for drugs or alcohol and supporting your brain's recovery process.
Exercise Reduces Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Low and high-intensity forms of exercise reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, which is particularly important during addiction recovery. These mental issues tend to co-occur with addiction and are common triggers for relapse, as people may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with overwhelming emotions. Regular exercise helps improve mental well-being in the following ways:
- Diverts you from the very thing you're anxious, stressed, or depressed about.
- Gets your heart rate up and increases the availability of endocannabinoids, serotonin, brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), all of which are important anti-anxiety neurochemicals.
- Activates your brain's frontal regions responsible for the executive function of regulating the amygdala – our fight or flight response system.
- Provides a healthy outlet for emotions and pent-up energy. It allows you to channel your stress and frustration into productive movements, helping to release tension and promote a sense of calm.
- Helps you develop resilience and coping skills that can be applied to other areas of your life, including dealing with stress or anxiety
Exercise Improves Your Physical Health
Substance abuse takes a toll on the body, leading to various health problems like cardiovascular disease, liver damage, respiratory issues, weakened immune systems, and neurological disorders. Regular HIIT exercise allows you to rebuild your body and experience the positive effects of a healthier lifestyle.
Exercise Provides Routine and Structure
Routine and structure are critical in recovery as they provide a stable framework and sense of direction. Scheduling your workouts creates a routine that keeps you organized and focused. It also gives you a sense of purpose, introduces a sense of accountability, and serves as a replacement activity.
Exercise improves Sleep
There's solid evidence that exercise improves sleep quality by reducing sleep onset and decreasing the time you lie awake in bed during the night. It can also alleviate daytime sleepiness and, for some people, lower the need for sleep medications. The reason is exercise regulates circadian rhythm, reduces stress, and promotes hormonal balance. Quality sleep is essential in recovery, especially since withdrawal symptoms like insomnia can last for months.
Exercise Builds Self-Esteem and Confidence
Physical activity can help you lose weight, tone your muscles and improve your posture, all of which make you feel confident about your body. Beyond that, it enables you to develop mental toughness and resilience.
Overcoming obstacles and surpassing your expectations can greatly enhance your self-confidence and belief in your abilities in exercise and other areas of life. Besides, exercise often involves social interaction with others with similar goals and interests. This fosters a sense of belonging and support, which can uplift your spirits and boost your self-esteem.
Tips for Starting a Fitness Routine
Here are some practical tips for starting a fitness routine, finding motivation, and staying committed to your fitness goals:
- Set Realistic and Specific Goals: Define clear and achievable fitness goals that align with your recovery journey. Make sure they are specific, measurable, and time-bound. Start with small milestones and gradually increase the intensity or duration of your workouts as you progress.
- Choose Activities You Enjoy: Find physical activities that you genuinely enjoy and look forward to. It could be jogging, swimming, dancing, weightlifting, or participating in group fitness classes. When you enjoy the exercise, it becomes easier to stay motivated and committed.
- Start Slowly: If you're new to exercise or getting back into it after a period of inactivity, start slowly to avoid burnout or injury. Begin with shorter workout sessions or lower-intensity exercises, gradually increasing the duration and intensity as your fitness level improves.
- Create a Schedule: Plan your workouts and establish a consistent schedule. Treat exercise as a non-negotiable appointment with yourself. Block out dedicated time slots in your calendar and stick to them as much as possible.
- Find an Accountability Buddy: Partner with a friend, family member, or support group member who shares similar fitness goals. An accountability buddy can keep you motivated, encourage you, and make your fitness journey more enjoyable.
- Mix it Up: Avoid monotony and boredom by incorporating various exercises and activities into your routine. Try different workout styles, explore outdoor activities, or join fitness classes to keep things interesting and engaging.
- Track Your Progress: Record your workouts, noting the exercises, duration, and any improvements you notice. Tracking your progress can boost motivation by visually representing your achievements and showing how far you've come.
- Reward Yourself: Celebrate your milestones and achievements along the way. Treat yourself to non-food rewards, such as a relaxing massage, a new workout outfit, or a day trip to a place you enjoy. These rewards can serve as positive reinforcement and help maintain your motivation.
- Listen to Your Body: Pay attention to your body's signals and adjust your workouts accordingly. Rest when needed, and don't push yourself too hard too soon. It's important to balance challenging yourself and allowing adequate recovery time.
- Stay Consistent: Consistency is key to reaping the benefits of exercise. Even on low-motivation days, commit to doing at least a short workout or engaging in light physical activity. Consistency builds discipline and helps solidify the habit of regular exercise.
Reach out for support when you're facing challenges or feeling discouraged. Lean on your support network, attend support group meetings, or consider working with a fitness coach or personal trainer specializing in addiction recovery. If you're having a hard time in recovery, we can help. Contact us today to learn about exercise integration as part of our holistic approach toward addiction treatment.