The Role of Exercise in Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Recovery

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The Role of Exercise in Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Recovery

Alcohol and drug abusers are notorious for neglecting their health in terms of nutrition, exercise, and general physical and mental well-being.

Exercise can provide a wealth of benefits that are incredibly helpful to the drug user or alcoholic – far beyond the obvious reasons that may immediately come to mind.

Here are a list of great reasons why you should exercise during addiction recovery.

Exercise is a stress-reducer…

Exercise can relieve stress both physically and psychologically. People with substance addictions often suffer from a massive amount of tension. Tension can come from a variety of sources, such as the substance itself, as well as the stress related to sustaining an addition.

Rather than relieve stress, many addictive substances increase the amount of stress in a person’s life. The temporary benefits one may gain from psychoactive substance contribute to an excess of worry, shame, and guilt which can last years.

…and natural mood enhancer.

Exercise increases dopamine and endorphins in the body, thus promoting good feelings, rather than negative, stressful emotions.

Because of this, exercise can provide a good-feeling rush – much like how the addict once felt the first time he or she used a substance. The big difference is, however, this high is natural, and not destructive like the one which is caused by many psychoactive substances.

Simply, most substances alter brain chemistry in a harmful way – exercise alters brain chemistry to your benefit, both physically and mentally.

Exercise Helps Maintain Weight and Build Muscle

exerciseIt is not uncommon for persons who are addicted to depressants, such as alcohol, to have experienced weight gain.

Many depressants make people sluggish, and alcohol has the added drawback of containing many empty calories. Weight loss during recovery can be a big image and ego-booster.

On the flip side, those suffering from weakness due to drugs can use this opportunity to increase muscle mass and overall health. For example, persons addicted to stimulants are often underweight. For those who do not wish to gain weight in the absence of say, amphetamines, exercise can help maintain that weight in a normal, healthy manner.

Exercise promotes the mind-body connection.

When we exercise, we are focusing on ourselves and our connection to our bodies. Whereas many substances detach us from our bodies (i.e. painkillers), exercise allows us to re-connect, and focus on something positive.

Exercise helps us clear our minds of daily duress, and can also help us increase metabolism and hasten detoxification from drugs and alcohol.

Persons who exercise regularly during addiction recovery report improved concentration on mental wellness, in addition to physical improvements. Also, planning and engaging in an exercise routine on a regular basis helps the addict focus on something other than substance use.

Exercise improves sleep.

Persons with substance addictions often have disrupted sleep patterns. Persons on stimulants may go long periods of time with little or no sleep.

In addition, alcohol consumption interferes with the body’s ability to obtain quality REM sleep.

And when weaning off of other depressants (especially those which promote sleep) addicts may encounter increased sleeping difficulties which can last for months.


Of note, many addiction recovery treatment centers provide fitness facilities in addition to nutritional counseling.

Keep in mind, exercise is not something that everyone can jump into. That is, it still takes time and effort to build endurance and see physical changes.

However, the mental benefits of exercise can happen very rapidly, due to positive chemical changes which can effectively return the brain to its normal, pre-addiction state.

Thus, entry-level yoga, walking, and other low-impact exercises such as these can often help tremendously, even if one is not physically capable of high-intensity exercise, such as running.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Related: Staying Sober: How Nutrition Can Help

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