How Exercise Can Help in the Path to Recovery

When a person uses drugs or alcohol, the brain releases dopamine and other endorphins, chemicals that create a pleasurable sensation throughout the entire body. Endorphins relax us, relieve stress and even ease physical pain—effects that, for people addicted to drugs or alcohol, can prove to be too tantalizing to resist. Our brains become chemically dependent, and when we try to quit, they just cry out for more. 

When people who struggle with addiction make the crucial decision to seek recovery, even if they have the purest intentions, they’re facing an uphill battle. They have to deal with the reality of the physiological cravings they will soon face. One of the most effective elements to add to recovery treatment program is one that can reduce these cravings, increase overall health and improve chances of recovery success: exercise.

Reducing Cravings and Improving Health

In order to stave off drug and alcohol cravings, many patients will seek to satisfy them with something new. Some people in recovery credit journaling or volunteering with staving off relapse, while others turn to riskier replacements, like food or sex, which, if left unchecked, can become just as dangerous as the original substance. But exercise is a replacement that can not only assist in the recovery process; it can also result in better overall health. 

Possibly the most important effect of exercise for a person in recovery is that it releases the same kind of endorphins that are a byproduct of drug and alcohol addiction—only this time, it’s rewarding positive behaviors. Exercise strains the body (in a positive way), and the brain wants to treat that discomfort, which it does through the now naturally occurring chemicals like dopamine. Once again, our stress is relieved and our pain is eased. When performed in treatment, the endorphins produced by physical activity help to replace those lost during withdrawal. Recovery is also a time of high stress, and endorphins are crucial to getting through it. 

Time and time again, exercise has been scientifically proven to benefit those in recovery. In one study, 30 minutes of physical activity a day decreased cravings for marijuana. In a study from the Scripps Research Institute, exercise was revealed to help prevent relapse and even helped reverse brain damage in methamphetamine-addicted rats. And the National Institute for Drug Abuse has touted the benefits of exercise on addiction, which has even been proven to strengthen resistance to addiction in teenagers. That means exercise can help prevent the disease in the first place, and help combat the disease once it has taken hold. 

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Increasing Chances for Recovery Success

Many rehabilitative centers have incorporated physical activity into their recovery programs, giving their patients a head start on addiction replacement and jump-starting helpful behaviors that will be useful in daily life. Patients often have the opportunity to take fitness classes in addition to their therapy and other recovery care, which can have both physical and emotional benefits. For one, it helps patients begin to repair some of the damage to their bodies caused by drugs and alcohol, including weight loss or gain. But there are also lessons in recovery from embracing physical diversions. For example, through yoga, patients learn the importance of maintaining a solo meditative practice, while participating in team sports can teach patients how completing a task can require us to depend on others. 

Fortunately, outside of a treatment center, there are many options to continue this positive work, including those intended specifically for people in recovery. Ask your outpatient program, sponsor, or therapist and see what kind of exercise program options are available near you. 

When we seek to recovery from addiction, we need all the help we can get. Exercise provides one of the best aids in this journey: It’s good for you, accessible to almost everyone, and it provides a natural high instead of a synthetic one.


Candice Rasa is clinical director of Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, Florida. She has more than 10 years of experience in the mental health and substance arena. She supports healing in the clients she serves from a perspective of spirituality and alternative Eastern methods.