How Exercise Can Help You Beat an Addiction

Exercising in gym

Most treatments for addiction involve some kind of "talk therapy" or counseling and focus on helping the person with the addiction to figure out why they continue to engage in addictive behaviors, despite problems developing as a result, and more effective ways of managing the feelings that underlie addictive behaviors. 

While these approaches to treatment are helpful to many people with addictions, some feel they need an approach that helps with the physical, as opposed to the mental or emotional aspects of addiction. Others find that exercise helps with managing cravings, as a backup therapy to talk therapy. Over the years, exercise has been recognized as a self-help tool among people recovering from addictions as support for recovery, but only recently has exercise been recognized as a treatment for addiction in its own right.

Effects of Exercise During Withdrawal

Withdrawal is an unpleasant experience that occurs when an addictive substance, such as alcohol or drugs, or addictive behavior, such as gambling, compulsive sex, or overeating, is discontinued. Withdrawal symptoms vary in intensity and which symptoms are experienced, depending on the individual and what they are withdrawing from, but central to all withdrawal syndromes is the craving for more of the substance or behavior, and the relief of withdrawal when more of the substance is taken, or the behavior is engaged in.

Feelings of depression or despair, anxiety or lethargy, irritability or anger, digestive problems, and nervous system symptoms such as sweating, dry or watery mouth, headaches, and muscle tension are common. Withdrawal symptoms for different substances may vary too:

Exercise has been repeatedly found to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. As these are major symptoms of withdrawal, experts are increasingly suggesting that exercise can alleviate withdrawal symptoms. Unfortunately, the research on humans taking exercise while going through withdrawal is limited, although the research on smokers and on animals going through withdrawal is more substantial.

One type of withdrawal that has been shown to be helped by exercise is nicotine withdrawal. Numerous studies have shown that smokers who engage in bouts of exercise experience reduced cravings for cigarettes, improved mood, and reduced withdrawal symptoms compared with nonexercising people quitting smoking. 

Most of the research on the effects of exercise on alcohol and drug withdrawal have been conducted on animals. When lab rats who are going through withdrawal are allowed to take exercise by choice—running in a wheel—their withdrawal symptoms appear to be reduced. For example, those going through alcohol withdrawal have reduced the incidence of seizures, and those going through morphine withdrawal have lower anxiety-like behavior and reduced temperature sensitivity. Additional research indicates that such exercise can repair damage to the brain's reward pathways caused by methamphetamine use.

Exercise for Relapse Prevention

Exercise has been investigated as a treatment for reducing the risk of relapse to addictive behavior and has been shown to reduce drug cravings and improve treatment outcomes. People recovering from alcohol use disorder, who have completed the withdrawal phase of detox, have lower urges to drink when they are able to engage in bouts of exercise. And people recovering from cannabis use disorder who engage in longer periods of exercise have reduced cravings for marijuana

Exercise has also been researched in combination with other treatments and found to be helpful when other therapies are used. Contingency management, a reward based system rather than a therapy, is also more effective when combined with exercise-related activities.

Studies of animals who have previously been addicted to drugs show that when exercise is available to these animals, they are less likely to relapse to drugs such as nicotine and cocaine. However, forced exercise may have the opposite effect.

The Potential and Limits of Exercise as an Addiction Treatment

Exercise appears to have great unexplored potential as a supplementary treatment for addictions. Its beneficial effects both on mood, and on withdrawal symptoms, make it a good fit for helping people in recovery from addictions to feel better, to be healthier, and to avoid relapse, and may even help repair some of the neurological damage caused by substance use.

However, on its own, exercise won't help you to understand why you became addicted in the first place, to recognize triggers, or to learn more effective ways of managing your emotions—although in itself, it may help improve your emotional state, and it may improve the effectiveness of other therapies. There is also a small risk that you could exercise too much, and develop exercise addiction, although this is rare. It is a good idea to talk to your doctor before starting an exercise regime, to make sure it is right for you.

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