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Recovery and Exercise

Providing Trusted, Evidence-Based
Treatment for Three Decades and Counting

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, we’re here to help.

It’s normal to have questions about addiction treatment before entering rehab. Many people want to know what to expect when it comes to recovery from substance use concerns.

Many people ask which mental health therapy techniques will be involved in their rehab care, or they might ask for information about the types of medications facilities use (or do not use) to help clients deal with addiction related changes. At Michael’s House, we offer a variety of mental health therapies and combine those treatments with individualized treatment plans to meet each person’s unique needs. Often, there are many ways to help make recovery stronger and help ensure a healthier future.

One way to supplement recovery is through exercise. While it’s true that mental health services have an important role to play in the recovery process, exercise might also play a key role in recovery for some people. In fact, exercise could be an important intervention that provides people with benefits they may not experience in any other way.

Physical Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

Man and woman bicyclingRegular exercise is one of the best ways to restore body to a strong, healthy state, and some people in recovery desperately need help to improve the way their bodies function. For example, people who abuse alcohol may take in hundreds of extra calories with each drink they take. A study in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that people with a family history of alcoholism have 49 percent higher odds of developing obesity when compared to those who don’t have a familial history of alcoholism.1 Adding extra calories to a body genetically predisposed to obesity could mean catastrophe for physical health. Being obese can put huge strains on the heart, muscles and joints, and exercise can help that weight to disappear.

While obesity can be a challenge for some people in recovery, there are others who have much more intense hurdles to overcome. For example, people who abuse drugs like crystal meth may be in poor health due to poor nutrition. Instead of eating and building strong bones and muscle, they may have pumped their bodies up with drugs, and they may simply be weak as a result. Since working out boosts blood circulation, stimulates the heart and lungs, and builds endurance, exercise could be helpful for them as well.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

In addition to helping the body to improve, exercise also provides a wealth of psychological and emotional benefits. As a study in the Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing puts it, exercise can:

  • Reduce depression
  • Soothe anxiety
  • Lift a negative mood
  • Improve self-esteem

Feeling the muscles stretch and compress just feels good, and watching the body grow stronger and more limber can provide a little boost that can help a low mood melt away somewhat. People who exercise may feel a little stronger, and that physical boost may help them to feel as though they’re more capable of dealing with life’s challenges in a comprehensive way.

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Not all forms of exercise that boost mental health produce intense sweating and rapid breathing. In fact, exercises like yoga and tai chi could be helpful in the recovery process. These exercises provide a form of moving meditation, allowing people in recovery to increase self-awareness while helping the mind to stay focused on the present. The exercises are fluid and slow, but the mind is processing, working and sorting. The healing could be happening just below the surface, but the results might be easy for the person to feel on a daily basis. While a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that studies on yoga haven’t come to conclusive results in terms of effectiveness, anecdotal evidence suggests that people really benefit from the exercises, and they’re commonly included in treatment programs for addiction as a result.

Exercise programs can also provide people with an outlet for their time and creativity. When they’re under the influence of drugs, they may spend all their spare time looking for drugs, taking drugs or recovering from drugs. Exercise can provide people with a new hobby and a less destructive way to fill up the days. These classes could be the beginning of a healthy new passion that will continue to support people for the rest of their lives.

How Exercise Helps Addiction Recovery

While feeling physically fit and mentally sound might be beneficial for almost anyone, people with addictions might also encounter other benefits through the development of a regular exercise routine. For example, clinical research on the benefits of exercise published in Mental Health and Physical Activity followed a group of drug-addicted patients who participated in a three-month aerobic exercise class as part of a comprehensive drug rehab program.

At the end of their treatment, patients who participated on a regular basis showed significant increases in the number of days they remained abstinent from alcohol and drugs.3 While the physical and mental health benefits could be responsible for those gains, the chemical changes an exercise program can cause might also play a role.

Cardiovascular exercise can boost the brain’s production of neurotransmitters that support emotional stability and a sense of well-being. Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine are all boosted by exercise.

People running on treadmills

Many illicit drugs interfere with the production of these chemicals, causing the intense cravings and emotional instability that characterize addiction. People become accustomed to accessing large amounts of these chemicals on a regular basis, and they may feel as though their lives are just not worthwhile unless they can feel the effects of these chemicals.

Exercise provides a natural and healthy route to the neurotransmitters these people need, allowing them to break a psychological addiction to drugs. When they exercise, they won’t need pills or hits of drugs. They’ll have the same benefit while they’re helping their bodies with exercise.

Can Exercise Become an Addiction?

When exercise is integrated into a complete recovery plan, it can be a powerful tool for overcoming addiction. But for some people who are recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, exercise itself becomes a substitute for the compulsive behavior. They may become hooked on the chemicals the brain releases during a bout of rigorous exercise, and they may feel a desperate need to exercise in order to get those chemicals.

Instead of feeling better with the addition of exercise, researchers writing in the journal Sports Medicine suggest that exercise-addicted people feel worse, with symptoms that look a lot like depression.

Warning signs of an exercise addiction like this include:

  • Insisting on sticking to a rigorous regimen, even when injured or sick
  • Skipping recovery meetings or counseling sessions in order to work out instead
  • Exercising instead of spending time with time with family or friends or engaging in other sober activities
  • Feeling compelled to keep pushing, instead of feeling happy with the goals reached in the exercise program4

Exercise addiction can be treated via the same techniques used in a drug or alcohol addiction program.Treatment programs that use exercise are careful to watch their clients to ensure that they don’t begin to develop an unhealthy dependence on an intervention that’s designed to help them feel better. Treatment program staff might also ask questions regarding exercise in their follow-up interviews in the aftercare process, just to ensure that exercise-related problems don’t develop when the treatment program is complete.

Addiction Help for Body and Mind

At Michael’s House, we offer addiction treatment plans for people who are struggling to achieve stability, health and happiness. We give you a variety of tools to facilitate the recovery process, and as part of that variety, we include different types of exercise programs. We help our clients work on their physical health through cardiovascular workouts, but we also provide meditative types of exercise for those who prefer a slower, softer form of physical exertion. Call us to find out how a comprehensive treatment program like ours could help you to rebuild your life on a more solid foundation: 760.548.4032.


1 Grucza, R.A. “The Emerging Link Between Alcoholism Risk and Obesity in the United States.” Archives of General Psychiatry.2010.

2 Callaghan, P.  “Exercise: A Neglected Intervention in Mental Health Care.” Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing, vol. 11, no. 4. August, 2004.

Brown, R.A., “A Pilot Study of Aerobic Exercise as an Adjunctive Treatment for Drug Dependence.” NCBI.June 1, 2010.

4 Paluska, Scott A. and Schwenk, Thomas A. “Physical Activity and Mental Health.” Sports Medicine. September 24, 2012.