Most people are aware that exercise is beneficial, as there is no lack of information regarding the benefits of an exercise program. Obesity, one of the major health issues in the United States, is in part a result of issues with improper diets and a lack of regular exercise in Americans.
Exercise also has numerous therapeutic benefits. People who suffer from various mental health issues can realize significant gains in wellness as a result of engaging in a regular program of exercise. These benefits also relate to individuals who are diagnosed with substance use disorders. There are numerous reports that have documented the benefits of exercise for individuals in recovery. Most of the information in this article comes from information in the book Applied Ethics in Mental Health Care: An Interdisciplinary Reader as well as research articles in the journals Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Review and Mental Health and Physical Activity.
Benefits of Exercise for Those with Substance Use Disorders
There are many benefits of exercise for individuals in recovery that include:
Reducing the need to use substances: The benefits of repeated exercise are experienced in many of the same areas of the brain that are also affected by use of drugs and alcohol, such as the reward pathway. Research reports have found that within 1-2 weeks of beginning an exercise program, recovering individuals have a significant decrease in their cravings for their drug of choice. These findings have been replicated over a number of different types of exercise, including walking, running, use of a treadmill, weightlifting, yoga, and other different forms of exercise. Exercise reduces cravings associated with various substance use disorders, including alcohol use disorders, cannabis use disorders, opiate use disorders, tobacco use disorders, etc.
Increased coping abilities: For many individuals in recovery, exercise becomes a type of substitute for using drugs or alcohol. This also results in individuals experiencing increased abilities to cope with issues that fostered their drug abuse, such as stress, boredom, feelings of loneliness, etc. These effects are also documented over different types of exercise and in individuals with different types of mental health disorders.
The ability to accept and cope with change: Recovering from a substance use disorder means making various changes and alterations to one’s lifestyle. Many of these can be quite significant, including changing peers, hangouts, habits, etc. Research has indicated that the incorporation of a regular program of exercise enhances one’s ability to accept change and cope with its aftermath.
Positive emotional states: All the above research literature has found that individuals who engage in regular exercise experience more positive emotional states. This is a response to feeling invigorated, healthier, less stressed, and a sense of accomplishment that occurs with improvements and physical fitness. In addition, research has been very focused on the release of the neurotransmitters in the brain that occur because of regular exercise. Individuals who have chronic substance use disorders have often suffered cycles of massive neurotransmitter release when they use drugs followed by massive neurotransmitter level depletion when they were unable to use their drug of choice. When the person stops using their drug of choice, their system begins to try and regulate itself, and this often results in depleted levels of neurotransmitters as well. Engaging in regular exercise increases the levels of a number of important neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and others, and this can facilitate positive emotions and positive mood.
Improvements in cognition: Regular exercise is also associated with improvements in cognitive abilities. These benefits have been associated over different contexts, including in individuals in various stages of dementia. Exercise is associated with increases in the ability to pay attention, recall information, and solve problems.
Enhanced self-esteem: Regular exercise also can lead to improved self-esteem. Feeling more positive about oneself is an aid to recovery from any substance use disorder.
Structure and discipline: Establishing and maintaining an exercise program requires discipline. This can carry over to other areas of an individual’s life, including their recovery from a substance use disorder.
Reduction in the effects of certain substances: Research studies using animals have demonstrated that the effects of regular exercise actually reduce the effects of certain types of drugs. One of the most well-known of these studies had rodents engage in a regular program of exercise on a running wheel. The rodents in the exercise group were found to be less susceptible to the effects of amphetamines and morphine than rodents not in the exercise program.
Improvement in the body’s ability to heal itself: Research has suggested that engaging in a program of regular exercise can result in the body being better able to repair itself. Rodents that were maintained chronically on methamphetamine and placed on programs a regular exercise demonstrated less neurological damage than rodents on the same drug without the benefit of an exercise program. Studies looking at individuals recovering from different substance use disorders have suggested that those individuals who use an exercise program as part of their recovery regime appear to regain certain cognitive abilities more quickly than those who do not use an exercise program.
Improved quality of sleep: Individuals who exercise regularly have higher quality of sleep than individuals who do not. Getting quality rest can enhance recovery from any substance use disorder.
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In addition, the benefits of an exercise program occur across all age groups, ethnic groups, and levels of education, and they are not gender-specific. The earlier an individual begins to implement a program of exercise into their recovery program from a substance use disorder, the better.
Exercise does not need to be excessive to be beneficial. Even a regular program of walking produces many of the benefits listed above. A person does not need to become a triathlete to experience the benefits of exercise. Even if a person has not exercised for years, they can benefit from an exercise program.
Finally, it is extremely important for anyone thinking of starting a program of regular exercise to consult with their physician first. This is especially true for individuals who have had long-term issues with substance abuse. A consultation with a physician can identify any potential issues that may be associated with implementing an exercise program, and the physician can then monitor the person and avoid any potential serious issues (e.g., cardiac issues) as the person progresses.
What Type of Exercise Should I Choose?
There are numerous types of physical activities that can be organized into a formal exercise program, such as walking, jogging or running, team sports, dance, martial arts, yoga, or even weight training and calisthenics.
Obviously, some forms of exercise require more significant involvement of various muscle groups and other organs, such as the cardiovascular system, than others. A person who is able to engage in a long-distance running program will most likely obtain a higher level of fitness and health than an individual who engages in a program of bowling. However, an individual who attempts a running program, decides that they do not like running, and then gives up exercising altogether after a couple weeks will not experience the benefits of an exercise program compared to an individual who engages in a program of bowling and continues it indefinitely.
The most important consideration is for the individual to choose something they will enjoy doing and, thus, will continue doing. One cannot realize the benefits of an exercise program if they do not actually engage in that program. Therefore, one should enjoy whatever option they choose.
Can a Person Be Addicted to Exercise?
It is true that some individuals with certain types of mental health disorders, such as eating disorders or even psychotic disorders, may exercise to a point where the exercise becomes detrimental instead of beneficial. Unless one has a mental health disorder where the individual may become very obsessive over their actions, there is little chance that one will actually become “addicted” to exercise. For a small proportion of individuals, exercise does become a dangerous obsession; however, this should not deter anyone in recovery from becoming involved in a program of exercise.
Individuals in recovery should rely on their therapists, sponsors, friends, and family to point out to them if they are developing the type of compulsive behaviors that signify an obsession or addiction to exercise. The probability of this occurring is very small, and overall, the benefits of a sensible exercise program far outweigh any potential detriments.