Many mental and behavioral health diseases end up damaging us in ways that aren’t immediately apparent, making daily exercise and routine behavior even more important for addiction recovery. The overwhelming majority of Americans see addiction as a leading issue in their communities, yet many of the tools and programs for treating addiction are inadequately equipped to handle recovery beyond detox. By the time many patients enter a recovery program, they would have burned vital social bridges in their lives, suffered unemployment and depression, and lost a lot of the skills and training that are generally needed for a successful life. While exercise may not be the solution for all aspects in this web of damage, there is growing evidence supporting the way that regular, scheduled physical activity can be a powerful tool to supplement traditional therapy and recovery.
One of the staples of any serious recovery program is to re-establish healthy circadian rhythms and adjust patients to a standardized schedule. Addiction can throw our lives out of sync by making us dependent on short-term gratification and even shorter goals. Commitment to a routine can improve productivity and establish a means to reach attainable, incremental goals, handling dopamine-reward systems in a healthier alternative to substance dependence.
Routines mirror the typical expectations of any serious occupation—they break daily tasks into simple, manageable steps, and they promote efficient and healthy cycles of work and relaxation. By breaking the malaise, disorganization and lack of motivation that can result from addiction, daily exercise can create a goal-centered mindset that can promote a sense of control and motivation. By giving patients a locus of control through scheduled exercise, we are also complementing other forms of empowering therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and giving them tools for managing their own health post-recovery.
Exercise may act as a filter from addiction cravings and reduce reoccurrence of the disease. Structured exercise takes time away from long, dull stretches of time where cravings could creep up and take hold; it can provide clear goals and simple reward systems similar to addiction. As psychiatrist Claire Twark, MD, said, “In my experience, many patients with various substance use disorders have found that exercise helps to distract them from cravings.” In this way, exercise may offer one of the few effective non-pharmaceutical means of overcoming cravings and therefore reducing risk of reoccurrence. In addition to the direct way it can combat substance cravings, exercise has been shown to have a notable effect on other mental and behavioral disorders that are frequently comorbid with addiction, such as depression.
Lastly, exercise has been shown to improve the way we view ourselves and the relationships to our family. In a qualitative study (Exploring Self-Care and Preferred Supports for Adult Parents in Recovery from Substance Use Disorders: Qualitative Findings from a Feasibility Study), Phyllis Raynor, et al., found that parents who engaged in regular exercise during substance addiction recovery were more likely to exhibit positive changes across seven “themes” of self-care. These include acceptance of self (and others), improved self-esteem, and better parental modeling for young children. As mentioned before, exercise offers a sense of control during recovery, but it also adds a sense of control for family life. By being more positive, energetic and having better faith in self, parents who exercise can become better caregivers to their children by being better at self-care, potentially offering an intergenerational resistance to addiction.
While there isn’t a strong body of knowledge on how exercise can be a direct solution for addiction, there is growing evidence that it can supplement traditional recovery programs to better support the peripheral goals of recovery. By giving a sense of control and structure to recovery, regular exercise prepares patients for a healthier, more productive life post-addiction.