Can Exercise Help Your Recovery?

This article was written by The Fix Staff and published by The Fix


Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can decrease the depression and anxiety associated with substance use disorder and prompt positive self-esteem and self-confidence.

Why Exercise?

Substance addiction takes its toll on every part of a person: physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual. The impact of addiction on the human body is extensive and devastating in many ways: sleeplessness and insomnia, loss of appetite and in coordination, and ultimately, a physical dependency that presents itself through cravings, flu-like symptoms, and changes in appearance that include weight loss and digestive issues. Repairing the physical damage that addiction delivers takes time, just as overcoming its mental and emotional toll does.

Studies have shown the regular aerobic exercise – physical activity that increases heart rate and the flow of oxygen through the bloodstream – can help individuals to recover from substance abuse when combined with a comprehensive program that includes therapy, improved diet, and social interaction. Research has indicated that exercise can provide relief and/or assistance with many of the aspects of addiction, from regular and escalating use to binging and relapse. Its impact on the emotional outlook of addicts has also been studied, and studies have shown that it can decrease the depression and anxiety that can often lead to increased use or relapse, and prompt positive feelings – self-esteem, self-confidence – that prompt continued abstinence.

Rehabilitation facilities like California’s Tarzana Recovery Center offer aerobic exercise as part of their treatment and recovery programs, including gym access, yoga, and numerous sober activities that involve elements of exercise. Individuals in recovery can also pursue exercise options as part of their post-treatment lives, and as part of the daily maintenance of sobriety and abstinence.

What’s So Good About Exercise in Recovery?

Here are just a few of the health benefits provided by exercise during recovery:

Stress Reduction. Stress can be a major hurdle during all stages of recovery. Like addiction itself, it produces both physical and mental responses in the body: a person under stress may experience an accelerated heart rate and blood pressure levels, increased body temperature, shallow or rapid breathing. Physical activity, and especially aerobic exercise of any kind, boosts circulation and sends endorphins – neurotransmitters which increase feelings of pleasure and well-being – to the brain, lowering blood pressure, improving mood, and reducing feelings of stress.

Mood, Sleep, and Cravings. By reducing stress, exercise can also ease the cravings for substances that come with spikes in anxiety and stress. Positive connections to physical activity and the sense of personal achievement that come with a good workout also boosts the senses of self-esteem and self-control that are sorely damaged by addiction. In some cases, just 30 minutes of exercise a day can have a positive impact on mood. Additionally, many individuals in recovering may find that their sleep schedules, which were severely hindered by substance use, return to a normal and regular pattern with increased exercise.

Overall Health. Addiction takes its toll on the body’s immune system and makes it more vulnerable to health concerns, including serious conditions like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Exercise improves the circulation of white blood cells, which fight illnesses and diseases, throughout the body; studies also suggest that exercise may even increase the number of white blood cells and specifically T-cells, which protect you from infection and certain diseases. Regular exercise also reduces inflammation in the body, which boosts your immune response to illness.

Which Exercises Are Best During Recovery?

While studies haven’t conclusively determined which exercises are the best to pursue during recovery, the two modalities that delivery the most benefits for physical, mental, and emotional well-being are cardio-related exercises and resistance training. Cardio exercises are any activities that elevate heart rate and the flow of oxygen in circulation their benefits include decreased blood pressure and blood sugar levels, increased HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), and improve lung capacity and function.

They can range in intensity from boxing and aerobics to swimming and even dancing. Hiking has the added benefit of taking you outdoors and providing you with Vitamin D from sunshine, as will relatively low-impact pursuits like gardening or walking. All of these exercises can be modified according to an individual’s level of experience, endurance, and ability.

Resistance training builds muscle strength and endurance through exercises using weights that are pulled or lifted. Weight training using bodyweights or weight machines, like the kind seen at a gym, is the most common form of resistance training, but can also involve water bottles or any other object with enough weight to create muscle contraction through resistance.

The benefits of resistance training are numerous: it lowers the chance of heart disease, blood pressure, and body fat, boosts good cholesterol levels, and reduces the changes of age-related issues such as muscle deterioration and osteoporosis.

Things to Note

The American Heart Association recommends that cardio exercise should be done for at least 30 minutes five to seven days a week. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that resistance training should be performed for a minimum of two days (non-consecutive) per week, and should consist of eight to 10 different exercises that engage various muscle groups.

However, it’s important to get guidance before starting any exercise program. Ask your doctor about which exercises might be right for you in your particular demographic (age, weight, exercise and health history). They can determine if a particular course of exercise is right for you.

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