Exercise as a Pathway to Recovery and Wellness 

June 7, 2019

If you’re in recovery from a substance use disorder, then you know what it feels like to be bored. Sobriety seems to dilate time, making minutes seem like hours and hours like days. Part of that is due to your brain chemistry being out-of-whack; you no longer have excessive amounts of dopamine or serotonin or whatnot (depending on your drug of choice) flooding your system and making you feel euphoric. Another aspect involves no longer having your time filled the activities surrounding drug use, such as making money, chasing down, and consuming the drugs. One great way to combat boredom and help repair your neurochemistry is through regular exercise.

Exercise cannot replace formal, evidence-based treatment like methadone or buprenorphine for opioid use disorders, or cognitive behavioral therapy, but it does show promise as a recovery aid. Animal studies have been especially promising, with one 2015 study finding that swimming helped minimize morphine withdrawal in rats, for example. Another 2015 study found that patients who were addicted to methamphetamine showed some neurochemical improvements when regular exercise was added to their inpatient treatment regimens. There is also some evidence to suggest that exercise may significantly decrease the severity of alcohol use in people who experience problematic drinking. By all accounts, exercise that is appropriate for your physical abilities is a healthy way to spend your time in recovery—and might just help prevent a relapse as well.

If you are not used to doing a lot of physical activity, incorporating regular exercise into your routine might sound daunting. Many people in recovery from addiction also struggle with moderation; you might be the kind of person who goes all in, or not at all. While there are certainly worse activities to obsess over than physical exercise, going too hard from the start could cause you to burn out quickly. That kind of disappointment—which you might read as a “failure”–could very well lead to harmful thoughts or even a relapse. Start off with a relatively light exercise routine, such as jogging, swimming, or even just walking. Incorporating a form of mindful stretching, such as yoga, can also help you to reconnect your mind and body while practicing the art of staying in the moment.

Exercise contributes to a host of positive health benefits. For example, many people in early recovery struggle with insomnia. Even a light, regular exercise routine will help improve sleep patterns—and that alone will change the way you feel throughout the day for the better. Exercise also protects against heart disease and helps regulate your blood pressure. High-intensity exercise, like sprinting, promotes the production of endorphins, our body’s natural opioids. If you exercise hard enough, you might even feel a “rush” similar to that of some drugs, but without the harmful side-effects of drug use. Low-intensity, sustained exercise, on the other hand, helps your brain heal. This is especially important for those in addiction recovery because habitual drug use causes brain changes that make cessation of drugs particularly difficult. Establishing a realistic, regular exercise routine will help deter boredom, promote a healthy brain and body, and provide you a structured routine that will help shape your day.

The Ammon Foundation believes that when individuals are holistically and strategically supported to build purposeful lives, the likelihood of them maintaining their recovery substantially increases. We provide this support via our two core programs – Ammon Recovery Scholars Program and Ammon Empowerment Workshop Program. To find out more about our programs, or to apply for an educational scholarship, please click here.