What Role Does Exercise Play in Recovery?
Exercise is a significant aid in substance abuse recovery. Research shows that exercise helps the body release healthy endorphins, like serotonin and dopamine, creating a natural high. These are the same kind of endorphins that get released when people abuse substances – only exercise releases them in a natural way that doesn’t harm the brain or body.
According to a study done by Frontiers in Psychiatry on the National Institute of Health, “Accumulating evidence shows that exercise influences many of the same signaling molecules and neuroanatomical structures that mediate the positive reinforcing effects of drugs. These studies have revealed that exercise produces protective effects in procedures designed to model different transitional phases that occur during the development of, and recovery from, a substance use disorder.” This means that people can get a mood boost and euphoric feelings from exerting physical energy instead of using toxic substances to create them artificially.
Other studies have revealed similar findings. One study examined an exercise program offered to addicts who misused substances, including opioids, cannabis, amphetamines and cocaine. Of 20 participants who exercised three times a week for two to six months, five reported full abstinence a year later and 10 reported that they had significantly decreased their substance use. Many people with substance use disorders find that exercise helps to distract them from cravings and also helps add structure to their days.
What Exercises Are Best for Someone in Recovery?
There is no one exercise that is right for everyone, whether or not people are in recovery. Everyone enjoys different ways of moving their bodies and there are benefits to absolutely every kind of exercise. A person can try whichever activities or styles they like and change things up at any time. Some of the most common methods are the easiest to pick up, such as the following:
Yoga is an excellent way to maximize the benefits of exercise. It’s wonderful for a person’s body and it also incorporates meditation and mindfulness. Studies point to the fact that physical exercise almost certainly aids in the recovery of an individual’s mental recovery. Yoga seeks to bridge the gap between both aspects and achieve harmony in an individual’s recovery process. Courses can range from simple to aerobically rigorous, but all almost certainly focus on conserving an inner foundation. While addiction may cause a lack of self-awareness, yoga is squarely concerned with building an inner understanding of oneself and their setting.
Yoga teaches one to focus only on the present moment and the task right in front of them. Many people in recovery spend a lot of time worrying about their recovery and yoga offers a chance to just relax and let those worries go. A person can learn to calm their mind and ease their anxieties, releasing any fear or anxiety and overcoming cravings.
In addition, yoga can act as a great means to rebuild self-confidence. Individuals can mess up poses or fall to the mat, but ultimately are instructed to embrace their limitations. By confronting their own areas of vulnerability, those who engage in yoga are also allowed the opportunity to feel an immense sense of pride by succeeding.
At most gyms and rec centers, people can find yoga classes at every level and there is also an abundance of online classes and guides to help anyone get started.
Hiking is wonderful because you already have everything you need in order to begin – your body and the great outdoors! You don’t have to hike Mt. Everest in order to benefit your health and recovery. Just being outside in nature has plenty of therapeutic effects. Going for a hike through the park or in the woods provides great exercise, fresh air, mood-lifting Vitamin D from the sun and more. It’s a great way to get out of your head and gain some perspective.
In recovery, it’s important to remember that the world is vast and there is a lot more to it than substances and cravings. It’s easy to lose sight of that when a person is facing so many demons from the past. Hiking can be a very healthy reminder that there is so much to appreciate in the world of sobriety than there ever was when a person was using substances.
Swimming is a perfect choice for those who have any physical pain following substance abuse because it is very gentle on the body. A person can exercise without putting extra pressure on joints and muscles. Plus, there are many ways to enjoy swimming. People can swim laps, do water aerobics with others or other games. It can be as gentle or as intense as a person wants and can work on various muscle groups. Water has a calming effect on people and many recovering addicts report that just showing up to the pool each day helps them feel calmer and more relaxed.
You might not immediately think of dancing for getting your weekly dose of exercise, but it’s actually a fantastic option for a recovery fitness routine. Dancing helps lower stress, improve moods, increase energy levels and develop flexibility. People can sign up for dance classes and choose a particular style that they’re excited about, whether it’s salsa dancing, waltzing or hip hop. They can even find plenty of dance classes online. Whatever a person likes, dancing offers an escape from any worries that recovery brings and gives people a fun hobby and a healthy way to have fun anywhere.
Walking is an excellent, low-impact exercise option that is great for almost anyone. It doesn’t take any equipment or planning, and you can do it pretty much anywhere. Even a brisk 15-minute walk can help fight cravings when they arise.
Most people think of cardio activities when it comes to recovery exercise options, but lifting weights is also great for recovery. Weight training can help improve a person’s sleep hygiene over time, which is excellent for those in recovery who have a hard time sleeping.
During the early part of the recovery process, people might be drawn to weight training because it is simple but also produces great results. Not only does it offer positive physical change, but it also gives people a chance to set goals and achieve them. Replacing the time a person used to spend taking drugs or drinking with healthy, sustainable habits can make cravings and early withdrawal symptoms more manageable. Joining a gym and working out with others is a good way to make recovery less lonely, too.
The Benefits of Exercise for Recovering Substance Abusers
The benefits of exercise for recovering substance abuse users are vast and varied. For one, rebuilding one’s day-to-day life with a consistent positive habit is a great way to help former addicts structure their time. Many types of exercise are broken down into timed workouts, like a 45-minute yoga class, spending an hour at the gym or going on a half-day hike. These incremental commitments can add up to a healthy lifestyle.
Individuals who exercise are making a commitment to improving themselves. They can achieve something every day that, in the long term, is hugely beneficial for their well-being. Even taking on a small exercise challenge can repair some of the damaged self-esteem that can come from active addiction.
Exercising also boosts the amount of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, two endorphins that are often compromised in a former addict’s chemical makeup. Instead of the immediate, fake chemical high that comes from substance use, exercise creates a naturally occurring stimulation of dopamine in a person’s brain. This natural high has no harmful effects on the body and is just a gentle mood-booster instead of the quick hit that drugs provide followed by the harrowing crash. This is possible through virtually any physical events: tennis, rock climbing, basketball, etc.—all of which, notably, are communal activities.
Additional Benefits of Exercise
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Working out can take many forms, from a quick walk around the neighborhood to training for a marathon or surfing. Exercise just means getting out and moving – which one can easily do anytime and anywhere.
It can provide structure. Being in recovery means sticking to a schedule and a healthy self-care routine. Exercise can add structure to a person’s days when they do things like set a workout plan or sign up for yoga classes at the gym, etc. It’s helpful to have a plan where a person knows they have a class early in the morning or a plan to go running right after work.
It takes up time. Being in recovery, especially early recovery, can mean that a person suddenly has a lot more time than they did before because all the hours they spent drinking or using drugs are now free. Exercise can help them figure out what to do with some of that extra time. Working out, in whatever form, can fill some of this time. Even one or two classes per week plus a couple of walks, runs or hikes on their own can take up several hours.
Exercise boosts a person’s mood. As mentioned above, exercise helps release dopamine, a natural mood booster. For people who are used to putting toxins into the body, it is extra important to fill their life up with things that feel good and make them feel good. That’s why it’s important to pick exercises that they like, so it feels like a reward and not a punishment to show up for them.
It strengthens the immune system. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health reports that getting regular exercise is very beneficial to a person’s health, and helps protect the body from serious conditions like cancer, stroke, heart disease and osteoporosis.
How Dieting Can Help Recovering Addicts
Dieting is just as holistically beneficial for individuals in recovery as exercising is—albeit, only if done correctly. Without adequate nutrition, post-withdrawal symptoms can be heavily accentuated, but some foods can cause their own miniature addiction-life symptoms.
Some individuals overcome their substance addiction only to indulge in their addictive cravings with sugary foods. Succinctly, an appropriate diet can be a major step in the process of rehabilitation—a step facilitated with the advice of medical practitioners. Although most should seek the help of a physician or advice on what nutrition plans can help them, some general tips include:
- Protein sources: nuts, meats, eggs, dairy products
- Fruits and vegetables: berries, oranges, avocados, beans, grains
- Foods rich in water: juices, gelatin
The bodies of most individuals who have just experienced a substance abuse issue have endured copious amounts of damage—deficiencies that cause withering internal organs, decreased or compromised brain function and issues with overall growth. By participating in a much healthier diet, any individual enables themselves to strengthen their body and prepare for future recovery.
Reach out to our team of professionals at Cardinal Recovery. We can help create a healthy, sustainable recovery plan for you or your loved one.