Even moderate exercise can make you feel great as “feel good” chemicals such as endorphin are released in the brain. More and more studies are showing that this process can aid in recovery from various addictions. For how, read on.
Studies show that exercise can be a useful aid in recovering from addiction thanks to the endorphins released in the brain when you exercise. Traditionally exercise was prescribed as a distraction activity during recovery, but over the last 15 years scientists and doctors have come to recognise the benefits of exercise both for physical and mental health. Exercise is now even being prescribed as an aid to over come a variety of mental health issues (such as depression and anxiety) and increasingly being used to treat recovering addicts specifically. But how can exercise help addicts recovering from drug or alcohol dependence?
Endorphins and The ‘Runner’s High’
When you exercise your body releases chemicals called endorphins from the pituitary glands which act as stress and pain relievers. With moderate to strenuous exercise your body produces endorphins naturally and leads to a feeling of euphoria, relaxation and well being. There are many accounts from runners and other athletes that have been engaged in strenuous exercise that they feel an intense sense of euphoria, also known as the ‘runner’s high’. There is even ongoing research into this ‘runner’s high’ sensation to see if it can be applied to addiction recovery therapies in the near future.
The theory is that when you push your body physically it releases endorphins to counter any pain you may be feeling from exercise. The drug Morphine acts in a similar way to endorphins but on a much stronger level, shutting off the pain receptors and inducing a feeling of euphoria. Other studies have found that during moderate intensity exercise our bodies produce a natural chemical similar to marijuana which relaxes and calms us down. While scientists are still unsure of the exact conditions needed to produce these drugs naturally, there is no doubt that exercise and these natural highs can be a useful aid in addiction recovery.
How to Integrate Exercise Into Your Recovery Programme
Exercise can be an incredibly useful aid to recovering from addiction, either substance or process addictions. When it comes to substance addictions like drugs or alcohol, most addicts are either trying to numb bad feelings or have damaged their body’s natural reward system, and are relying on substances to give them pleasurable feelings. The more they use substances the more it will numb their body’s natural responses, leading to a downward spiral involving more substance abuse. Similarly with process addictions like gambling or sex, addicts abuse the body’s natural reward system and get hooked on highly stimulating and addictive behaviours which over time can affect the persons daily life.
During the start of your recovery, exercise can be an aid to distract you from giving into cravings and substitute the substance or behaviour from which you derived your ‘high’. For example, spend the evenings that you previously would in a bar getting drunk, going to the gym instead. One study found that regular exercise curbed both marijuana cravings and use over a two week period.
Recovering from substances or process addictions can be difficult but it seems that setting up an exercise routine can distract you from cravings, help reset your body’s pleasure reward settings and reduce stress and anxiety (some of the most common feelings when recovering).
What Kind of Exercise Should I Do?
As well as running or other moderate to high intensity exercises, yoga and pilates are also good aids to recovery because they promote mindfulness and connection with your own body.
Mindfulness therapy and meditation is increasingly being used to aid addiction recovery actually helps prevent relapse. In Lancashire, UK a CrossFit training gym has been set up as a recovery project for substance abuse; the 180 Recovery Project uses the 12 Step fellowship programme alongside a gruelling CrossFit strength and conditioning training in order to help addicts go through a full recovery and improve their health, goals and prospects for the future. Rapper Eminem also used exercise to overcome a drug addiction, stating ‘It gave me a natural endorphin high, but it also helped me sleep, so it was perfect’.
As yet there seems to be no one type of exercise that is best to aid recovery, rather the exercise should be something that suits the individual and makes them feel good.
Finding an exercise that suits your schedule is the best option for recovery. Working toward a goal may also be a good way to overcome addiction though exercise. For example if one of your life goals is to run a marathon then slowly start training for that. Having something to work toward is a useful deterrent for relapse as your future goal becomes an additional motivator to stay clean.
When Should I Start Exercising?
Start today – there is no time like the present. Replace your usual addiction activity with a gym session or a yoga class and see how you feel. If you are already receiving treatment for addiction recovery then talk with your counsellor or help group and discuss how you can integrate exercise into your life as a way to aid recovery. Identify a few different places to exercise (gym, swimming pool, exercise classes) and use them if you start to feel drug cravings, withdrawal symptoms or anxiety about recovery. Having a defined place to go when you start to feel anxious is a good aid to recovery.
If you are not sure about how to use exercise to overcome addiction, or even how to address your addiction, then contact us to find out more and to book an appointment with one of our counsellors today.