Addiction Coping and Recovery Overcoming Addiction How Exercise Can Help You Beat an Addiction By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. Learn about our editorial process Updated on November 23, 2020 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print RyanJLane/iStock Most treatments for addiction involve some kind of "talk therapy" or counseling. This often focuses on helping the person with the addiction to figure out why they continue to engage in addictive behaviors despite negative consequences. Therapy also helps people develop more effective ways of managing the feelings that help fuel 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. All withdrawal symptoms involve 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: Alcohol withdrawal Nicotine withdrawal Cannabis withdrawal Caffeine withdrawal Heroin withdrawal Cocaine withdrawal Meth withdrawal 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. 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. 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. Some findings: 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, may also be more effective when combined with exercise-related activities. 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. It may, however, 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. The Best Online Therapy Programs We've tried, tested and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, Betterhelp, and Regain. 7 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Opiate and opiod withdrawal. Wilson SD, Collins RL, Prince MA, Vincent PC. Effects of exercise on experimentally manipulated craving for cannabis: A preliminary study. Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. 2018;26(5):456–466. doi:10.1037/pha0000200 Park SS, Shin MS, Park HS, Kim TW, Kim CJ, Lim BV. Treadmill exercise ameliorates nicotine withdrawal-induced symptoms. J Exerc Rehabil. 2019;15(3):383–391. doi:10.12965/jer.1938228.114 Manthou E, Georgakouli K, Fatouros IG, Gianoulakis C, Theodorakis Y, Jamurtas AZ. Role of exercise in the treatment of alcohol use disorders. Biomed Rep. 2016;4(5):535–545. doi:10.3892/br.2016.626 Weinstock J, Wadeson HK, VanHeest JL. Exercise as an adjunct treatment for opiate agonist treatment: review of the current research and implementation strategies. Subst Abus. 2012;33(4):350–360. doi:10.1080/08897077.2012.663327 Lynch WJ, Peterson AB, Sanchez V, Abel J, Smith MA. Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: a neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013;37(8):1622–1644. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.011 Egorov AY, Szabo A. The exercise paradox: An interactional model for a clearer conceptualization of exercise addiction. J Behav Addict. 2013;2(4):199–208. doi:10.1556/JBA.2.2013.4.2 By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. 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