You might not think regular exercise could significantly improve your addiction recovery journey, but it will. That’s because physical activity revs up your brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine and serotonin.
Drugs and alcohol work similarly to release these two powerful neurotransmitters along the brain’s reward pathway. However, fitness provides pleasurable effects without substance addiction’s debilitating physical, mental, and emotional pain.
Some Unique Fitness Benefits for Men
While exercise works well for men and women caught in addiction, it’s especially effective for men. Where women often internalize and emote, men usually need to work out their feelings in more physical ways. Exercise opens up more opportunities for male bonding and sharing.
In addition, an article in the Journal of Neuroscience Research found that men, more so than women, tend to become involved in drug and alcohol abuse because of their desire to be ‘part of the group.’ Rehabs for men can use this natural tendency instead to help their clients build healthier group environments focused on sporting events, outdoor activities, and other fitness-related pursuits.
For men, fitness and physical health should not just be a priority while in treatment at an addiction recovery center. “One essential aspect of our process here is the after-care alumni program,” said Preston Dixon, COO at Renaissance Ranch, a men’s treatment center near Salt Lake. “We do a variety of physical activities, such as hikes and golf tournaments, to keep our brothers active in their continued recovery.”
The Journal article also revealed that men experience more significant challenges than women when quitting alcohol. A consistent exercise routine can significantly ease the stress and anxiety related to substance withdrawal. It’s critical not to overdo it, though. The good idea is to work with your doctor or a medical professional to establish an exercise plan that will provide energy but won’t overtax your body while it’s healing.
Other Recovery Advantages of Exercise
Bonding and stress reduction aren’t the only plusses for a steady fitness regimen. Here are a few others:
Cravings are like waves – they begin, gain momentum, crest, and fall away. The key to fighting them is distracting yourself long enough for the cycle to play out. Exercise is a great way to refocus your mind and energy on something positive. It also fills the void in your schedule left by drugs and alcohol.
Researchers have long held that at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise daily will help you sleep better. Activity reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the amount of slow-wave sleep you get. This better-quality rest allows your brain and body to rejuvenate more fully.
The relationship between sleep and exercise goes the other way, too – improved sleep considerably lessens daytime fatigue. It also boosts your energy level, giving you that extra oomph to get out there and exercise.
Conversely, when you don’t get enough quality sleep, cravings grow stronger, triggers seem more intense, you are tired and irritable, and life generally feels a lot more overwhelming.
Clears the Mind
The University of British Columbia conducted a study of 71 seniors between the ages of 56 and 96 and found that regular aerobic exercise helped the brains of those participating become more efficient, based on MRI scans before and after. Similar research showed that aerobic exercise also enlarges the hippocampal region in the brain. The hippocampus plays a significant role in learning and memory and usually declines in size with advancing age.
People with substance use disorders often suffer from varying degrees of brain fog and cognitive difficulties due to excessive intake of drugs and alcohol. Aerobic exercise and therapy can do much to bring the brain back into balance and improve cognitive function.
Coming out of treatment, you will be used to a certain amount of structure. You’ll want to continue to leave some of that scaffolding in place, as it will provide stability during your transition back into life.
A regular exercise program allows you to keep structure in your day by setting a specific time aside for fitness and holding to that commitment. When you feel tempted to smoke marijuana, for example, remembering that you are getting up early to work out the following day can help you resist that urge to relapse.
You might be worn out when you finish that 2-mile run or walk, but you’re also delighted you could go a little farther than you did the day before. Or maybe you finally worked up to the level where you can bench your body weight. Exercise gives you little personal victories every time you engage in it. Naturally, these small feats serve to boost your confidence and self-esteem, which is so critical in recovery.
Addiction’s guilt, shame, and powerlessness rob us of our self-worth and strip away any confidence we might have in one day getting better. It’s exhausting to constantly battle these mental and physical demons. Physical fitness helps us stay fueled to keep fighting.
How and when you exercise will vary from person to person, depending on age, physical capability, mental health, etc. As you can see from the research, though, anything that keeps you moving and active will work.