Regular Exercise: A Powerful Countermeasure to Cravings

By February 24, 2021Mental Health, Recovery

Although there is no stand-alone therapy or technique infallible for substance abuse treatment, many providers may find that using various strategies is most effective. In addition to psychotherapy, educational tools, and other holistic approaches, exercise can be a powerful countermeasure to cravings while promoting healthy habits conducive to long-term recovery. While addressing the mental and emotional aspects of addiction is critical, regular exercise can help address the physical sides of addiction, as well. Engaging in physical activity can act as a healthy coping mechanism to manage stress and cravings and foster self-efficacy. While exercise may not be the sole solution for addiction treatment, getting consistent physical activity can help supplement traditional therapy in the recovery process.

Health Benefits of Regular Exercise

Exercise is promoted as an intrinsically healthy, rewarding, and mood-enhancing activity. It is often broadly defined as a positive undertaking to maintain both mental and physical health, reduce stress, boost energy, improve sleep quality, and provide a sense of routine and structure when practiced regularly. All of these qualities make it an appealing adjunctive intervention to help those in recovery by promoting healthy coping mechanisms and preventing relapse among individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs). 

In addition to the health benefits of exercise, engaging in regular physical activity can influence a person’s self-esteem, confidence, and self-efficacy towards maintaining abstinence from substance use. Becoming healthier both physically and mentally through exercise can improve the way individuals view themselves and their relationships. As a form of self-care, committing to exercising offers a sense of control over one’s recovery. They are consciously taking action toward getting better that has physical and easily measurable results. 

Exercise for Relapse Prevention

An essential aspect of a treatment program is to help patients re-establish healthy rhythms, daily routines, and adjust to a schedule. When an individual struggles with SUD, it is possible that the side effects caused them to become out of sync with their life due to their focus on short-term gratification rather than long-term goals that depend on stability. Incorporating regularly scheduled exercise practices and other treatments can provide a sense of commitment to a routine. This can help get individuals back on track, improve productivity, and serve as a means to reach incremental, attainable goals, which is a healthy skill to develop.  

Building these routines can reflect real-world, typical expectations for holding an occupation and maintaining reliability and dependency among coworkers, family members, and friends. Focusing on various forms of exercise depending on the individual can provide manageable steps towards healthy, efficient, and balanced work and relaxation cycles. Daily exercise can create a goal-centered focus that offers a sense of motivation and control that their substance abuse may have previously disrupted. Breaking this cycle of disorganization and lack of motivation by giving patients control over their recovery through scheduled exercise can complement other empowering forms of therapy such as Motivational Enhancement Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. These healthy skills they develop in treatment can continue into their ongoing recovery process. 

Additionally, a study on exercise-based treatments for SUDs found that exercise activates certain brain activities, such as the reward systems, that are similar to the effects of drugs and alcohol. Exercise increases the concentration of specific neurotransmitters like beta-endorphins, epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which contribute to the experience of exercise-induced reward. The influx of serotonin may also partially explain the positive effects exercise has on stress, depression, and anxiety. Using exercise as a healthier alternative to substance abuse in handling the brain’s reward system may also help alleviate cravings. Alleviating these cravings through structured physical activity can both serve as a distraction when otherwise empty periods could allow cravings to creep up, and as a motivator to achieve clear goals activating reward systems that previously may have been fulfilled through substance use.

Exercises to Curb Cravings

It is critical to keep in mind that early recovery is a time of significant transition that impacts personal health, wellbeing, relationships, and employment. An individual may also need time to recover from any deficiencies and gain back strength through proper nutrition before engaging in strenuous activity or exercise. Therefore an exercise routine should complement these changes and be integrated into their life rather than disrupting them. Also, while developing structure and routine is important, adding variation can help sustain motivation and effort. Depending on an individual’s interests and capabilities, some activities they may consider include:

  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Walking/ Running
  • Strength training
  • Team sports or group classes

 While exercise is not a stand-alone treatment or solution for addiction, it can be beneficial when used as an adjective intervention. Alongside the intrinsically healthy and rewarding aspects of getting regular exercise, it can provide structure, attainable goals, and a way to relieve stress, which are all essential skills to develop in recovery. Physical activity can also be a powerful countermeasure to cravings by acting as a productive distraction and as a motivator to set and achieve goals that naturally activate the reward circuit where substance abuse may have previously disrupted. If you or someone you love is turning to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, reach out to us at Alta Centers. We believe that treatment programs should integrate into a person’s life and that recovery does not mean the end of your life but a new start. For more information about our detox, treatment, or recovery services, call (888) 202-2583.

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