Exercise for Addiction Recovery
Using Exercise to Help Overcome Addiction
Research has revealed that people who exercise are less likely to abuse substances. Exercise can increase wellbeing and release endorphins, making it a useful long-term strategy to combat substance abuse and decrease the risk of relapse. 1
Benefits of Exercise
When someone is in recovery for an addiction to drugs or alcohol, he or she may experience a diminished ability to feel pleasure, depending on the substance. 2 This is known as anhedonia, and it can contribute to relapse. 2 Exercise can help boost a person’s mood while he or she works toward achieving and maintaining sobriety.
Some of the other ways exercise can help someone recover from a substance addiction are:
- Reducing cravings.
- Releasing endorphins.
- Relieving stress.
- Improving wellbeing.
- Increasing confidence.
- Improving health.
- Healing damage done to the body by addiction.
- Providing structure to daily life.
- Improving body image. 3
- Providing a higher quality of life. 3
- Raising energy levels. 3
Many people addicted to drugs or alcohol will engage in binge-like patterns of use, in which they use large amounts of the substance for a brief time. 1 These binges are hazardous and can lead to emergency department visits, criminal acts, and unsafe sexual practices. 1
Preliminary studies in rats have found that those that have access to running wheels are less likely to self-administer drugs, particularly cocaine. 1 These results pave the way for future addiction research and suggest that exercise could decrease binges for those who are prone to compulsive and unrestrained drug or alcohol abuse. 1
Types of Exercise for People in Recovery
People who are interested in exercising during their recovery have a wealth of options. Everyone is different, so you may need to try a few different activities before you find what works best for you. A key part of including exercise in your recovery program is to choose something you love to do. If you enjoy the activity, it will be much easier to make it a regular part of your life.
How to Develop an Exercise Routine
If exercise hasn’t been a part of your life before, you might be hesitant to start working out regularly. That’s OK. Start slow and work your way up.
If you’d like to develop an exercise routine, talk to your treatment team while in rehab about including it in your recovery program. Or you can begin to exercise as part of your aftercare plan when you leave rehab.
Some other tips for developing an exercise routine include:
- Consult with a physician to ensure safety and health.
- Pick activities you enjoy so that you’ll be more likely to continue doing them.
- Make a schedule for yourself using a calendar. This will help you hold yourself accountable.
- Do activities with other people if you find it hard to get motivated (this can also help you to build a new sober network of friends once you complete your treatment program).
- Join a team or a Meetup group to make exercising more fun.
- Take different workout classes at a gym or a yoga studio.
It can be difficult to get a routine going at first. But as time goes on, you may find that exercise has become a customary part of your day.
Exercise and Addiction Treatment
When you arrive at a recovery center, a therapist will assess the nature of your substance abuse and your mental health status. A treatment team will then create an individualized treatment plan designed to meet your personal needs. If you know that you’d like to exercise while attending an addiction recovery program, talk to your therapist about it.
Each rehab is different. Some will have on-site gyms or outside courts that you can use at designated times. Others will have a recreational therapist or a personal trainer on staff to provide fitness-related workshops.
Not all recovery centers offer exercise as part of addiction treatment or have fitness facilities available. Below are the types of rehabs that typically offer these services:
- Inpatient treatment centers: These recovery programs offer a high level of care and require that you live at the rehab center for the duration of your treatment. You receive around-the-clock medical and psychiatric services, therapy and counseling, drug education, and aftercare planning.
- Luxury treatment centers: These programs have many of the same services as inpatient or residential facilities. But they also have posh settings and added amenities, such as gourmet meals, horseback riding, swimming, golf, yoga, spa treatments, acupuncture, and meditation, among many others. They tend to have high staff-to-patient ratios and also offer holistic or alternative treatments.
- Executive treatment centers: Much like luxury rehabs, executive recovery programs offer standard inpatient services. But they cater to people who cannot take time away from work responsibilities while receiving addiction treatment. Added amenities include private rooms, high-speed Internet, and work rooms. Executive programs often offer exercise opportunities such as pools, outdoor courts, and fitness centers. They may also plan scheduled trips to kayak, deep sea fish, or ride horses.
Cautions About Exercising in Recovery
Exercise can help prevent relapse and encourage abstinence from drugs and alcohol. But there is a risk of overdoing it. Like anything else, too much exercise can be problematic and become compulsive.
Be careful not to replace your substance addiction with an exercise addiction, as it can have harmful effects on the mind and body.
Some dangers associated with exercise addiction include:
- Physical injury. 4
- Hazardous weight loss.
- Avoiding important responsibilities. 4
- Withdrawal effects with cessation of exercise (sleep problems, anxiety, depression, irritability). 4
- Interpersonal or social problems. 4
Make sure you schedule days off. Your muscles need to repair themselves after strenuous physical activity. A day off can also help to prevent injuries and sickness. Working out with others can also help you monitor your exercise levels and can make the experience more enjoyable.
Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about increasing your fitness levels. You may need to take a break for a while and return to exercising later. Listen to your body and avoid pushing yourself through illnesses and injuries.
Find a Recovery Program
Exercise can enrich your addiction treatment program and provide you with many additional benefits. If you suffer from an addiction to drugs or alcohol and wish to integrate exercise into your recovery program, call our helpline at to find a rehab that offers exercise.
. Smith, M., and Lynch, W. (2012). Exercise as a Potential Treatment for Drug Abuse: Evidence from Preclinical Studies. Frontiers in Psychiatry Front. Psychiatry 2.82.
. Hatzigiakoumis, D.S., Giovanni Martinotti, M., and Janiri, L. (2011). Anhedonia and Substance Dependence: Clinical Correlates and Treatment Options. Frontiers in Psychiatry 2.10.
. Roessler, K. K. (2010). Exercise Treatment for Drug Abuse – A Danish Pilot Study. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health 38.6: 664-69.
. Freimuth, M., Moniz, S., and Kim, S.R. (2011). Clarifying Exercise Addiction: Differential Diagnosis, Co-occurring Disorders, and Phases of Addiction. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health IJERPH 8.12: 4069-081.