The Biochemical Benefits of Exercise for Addiction Recovery
Addiction, which includes substance use disorder, is a complicated issue that can plague people for a lifetime. Here's why science points to exercise as an effective tool to battle addiction and complete the road to recovery.
How addictions progress
Many substance addictions share similar biological characteristics, which evolve the longer the behavior continues. In the beginning, dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a role in pleasure, triggers a reward system that motivates people to keep using a substance. During the early stages of addiction, inhibiting dopamine pathways can help reduce dependency.
With continued use, the addicted brain compensates by lowering baseline dopamine levels, so users start to seek dopamine boosters just to feel normal. Those with genetic markers for addiction get more of the reward system when using substances, increasing their risk for addiction.
Overlapping effects of exercise
Exercise also releases dopamine, making it a promising non-pharmacological option for addiction treatment. Chronic drug use often comes with long-term health consequences, such as osteoporosis, heart issues, insomnia, obesity and cognitive dysfunction. Since physical activity is known to help reverse these concerns, it's a win-win for anyone trying to overcome an addiction and ward off prolonged health effects.
When engaged in an exercise program, individuals recovering from methamphetamine addiction have lower levels of anxiety and depression, along with better strength, endurance and cardiovascular health. Not only does exercise reduce the aftereffects of addiction, but it may also help prevent unhealthy behaviors. For instance, studies indicate that physically active teenagers are less likely to smoke or use drugs.
When it comes to managing withdrawal, exercise can be an effective strategy that temporarily reduces cigarette and alcohol cravings. Some turn to substances as a way to self-medicate for anxiety. Exercise can be a healthier way to cope with anxiety. Anyone struggling with an addictive habit can harness exercise's positive impact on brain chemistry.
The study of addiction usually centers on substance use. However, addictive behaviors extend beyond drugs and alcohol. The impact of smartphone addiction is widespread and on the rise. Playing games and watching videos on smartphones have become coping mechanisms to deal with frustration and boredom.
When access to smartphones is restricted, changes in mood and withdrawal symptoms can be observed. So far, research indicates pronounced exercise benefits for individuals with severe smartphone addiction. It's possible that encouraging physical activity in younger generations could combat some of the negative associations of screen time, including social isolation, sedentary behavior and poor concentration.
Fitting exercise into your recovery plan
More research is needed to identify the ideal exercise programs for the treatment of substance use disorder. Still, it appears that moderate exercise (rather than intense exercise, which can simulate the effects of drug use) is the best way to ward off addiction. Increasing physical activity levels can place an added emphasis on fitness and self-improvement, both serving to counteract unhealthy vices.
Exercise alone may not be enough to overcome an addiction, but it certainly has the potential to help. Talk to your mental health provider about using exercise to combat cravings and minimize the chronic temptation of addictive behaviors. Given the supplementary physical and mental benefits of exercise, you have nothing to lose.