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Exercise helps with Withdraw

Paul Aitken explains the positive effects of exercise for the recovering addict.

It is no secret you can get a rush from exercise. Some people are legitimately addicted to the adrenaline rush when participating in extreme sports or other physical activities.

Studies have shown that exercise can help reduce the effects of withdrawal from opiates and other substances and can also lessen the instance of relapse. So, it would stand to reason that exercise can help with withdrawal, right? Correct!

Exercise has many positive effects on the recovering addict. It is frequently prescribed as a part of a holistic approach to addiction recovery, and there are quite a few reasons why.

Exercise is a Distraction

If you see no other benefit from exercise during recovery, you will, at the very least, find it to be a positive distraction. Many inpatient and outpatient clinics recommend exercise to patients in recovery.

The premise is simple. When a person who suffers from addiction feels the need to reach for that bottle or that pill, they must find a way to divert their attention. Many counsellors recommend a patient "do something with his hands," like paint or piece together a puzzle. But exercise is very commonly recommended as well.

Exercise, in most cases, will physically remove the person from the trigger, if there is one. It will allow the person to focus on something else, making their body "feel." And, aside from that, it is a good habit.

Apart from exercise, though, there are many other reasons why professionals recommend exercise to help with withdrawal.

Exercise Alters Your Brain

Most drugs and addictive substances have one thing in common: they alter your brain's chemistry. We will not spend too much time talking about receptors and the technical stuff here. What you need to know is that drugs usually release endorphins.

Endorphins are "feel good" chemicals in your brain. And no matter how sore your legs may feel after a good run, those endorphins are released during exercise.

It is important to note that regular physical activity is imperative during the recovery phase. When a person abuses a substance, they can semi-permanently cause an imbalance in how their brain receives hormones. Regular participation in physical activity will slowly bring the body's chemical balance back to normal.

Exercise, Meditation, and Withdrawal

A recent UCLA study showed that meditation might decrease the relapse of those recovering from meth and cocaine addiction.  Stimulants, as the name implies, are "uppers." They carry with them a host of side effects, including:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased brain activity
  • A change in sleeping patterns
  • Hyperactivity or hyper-irritability
  • Panic and anxiety

As a result, cocaine and meth withdrawal symptoms include increased agitation, depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, and suicidal tendencies. That is where meditation comes in.

Meditation and mindfulness strategies are frequently used to recover those struggling with addiction to stimulants. These exercises allow the user to manage cravings and learn other ways of coping with these stresses naturally.

Exercise is one such meditation strategy. While physical activity like weight lifting can be helpful, most practitioners prescribe exercises such as yoga or running. These exercises place the user in a state of mind focused on breathing and "feeling the moment." The result? A coping strategy that has positive long-term effects.

Exercise and Long-Term Effects

Speaking of long-term effects, it is not just the meditative aspect of exercise which helps those in withdrawal. As it turns out, the feeling of accomplishment goes a long way, too.

Exercise is effective in helping with withdrawal because it boosts self-confidence. In the beginning, just a simple run around the block may encourage a sense of pride. Later, as the physical appearance changes, a strong sense of self-worth begins to evolve. Finally, the recovering addict will realize that they have found a positive outlet to reach for instead of an addictive substance.

Physical Effects of Exercise on Recovering Addicts

Of course, you know that exercise has countless benefits to the body. Improved appearance touches the surface of those benefits. And while the rise in self-confidence is undoubtedly helpful to those recovering from addiction, it is by no means the only way exercise will benefit them.

First of all, exercise will reduce the risk of chronic disease. Drug and alcohol abuse can take a severe toll on the circulatory and respiratory systems and the liver, kidneys, and other organs. Implementing an exercise routine can lower blood pressure, reduce insulin sensitivity and lower the risk of heart disease.

Exercise will also increase the blood flow to the brain as oxygenated blood flows to the brain. The hormone receptors in the brain will also heal, causing the chemical balance to return to normal. Brain health and memory will improve.

Other side effects of addiction can be partially remedied by exercise. Skin that looked sallow and unhealthy can improve health. Muscle mass that was lost can be regained. Bone health can be improved. And the metabolism can return to normal.

Implementing Exercise into a Recovery Program

Addictive behaviours can have adverse long-term effects on the body. As a result of addiction, the heart, lungs, and other organs may suffer. In some cases, that deterioration is irreversible.

With that in mind, any person who wishes to begin a recovery program that incorporates exercise should speak with a qualified healthcare professional. The most obvious risk of recovering addicts is a weakened heart and the risk of a heart attack.

Less obvious, however, is the risk of developing an addiction – to exercise. Studies have shown that some recovering addicts have turned to exercise as a replacement "drug," a way to fill the void that drugs formerly filled.

When overseen by a qualified professional, exercise can be a beneficial tool for addiction recovery and withdrawal. However, it is not a cure. Exercise should be just one part of a comprehensive strategy to overcoming addiction.


Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • ATKIN, P. (2018) Exercise helps with Withdraw [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/article312.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Paul Aitken is a freelance writer and the author of The Online Writer's Companion. He writes under several different pseudonyms, and his work has been featured on many of the web's most significant sites, including many major print publications in the UK and US.