Exercise Plays Important Role in Addiction Recovery

By Hugh C. McBride

A long process that requires discipline, focus and extended effort, achieving long-term recovery from drug addiction or alcohol dependency has often been compared to a marathon.

For some former addicts and alcoholics, this metaphor is particularly appropriate — while for others, the race to recovery occurs on a track, in a swimming pool or atop a bicycle.

In other words, as addiction experts and mental health professionals gain greater insight into the mind-body connection, physical fitness programs are proving to be important components of long-term addiction recovery efforts.

Healthier Bodies, Stronger Brains

The most obvious benefits of regular exercise involve lost weight, improved strength and enhanced cardiovascular performance. And while physical improvement is obviously an important reason for following a personal fitness plan, the effects of exercise aren’t limited to speed, strength and endurance.

In her June 29 entry on Newsweek’s “The Human Condition Blog,” writer Kate Dailey reported that, in addition to strengthening the body, exercise can also improve the brain’s ability to resist the temptations of addiction:

Exercise has been shown to help protect the brain against addiction, says Mark A. Smith, a professor of neuroscience at Davidson University. His research on rats shows that access to exercise reduces the appeal of cocaine.

“Vigorous exercise increases dopamine concentrations in the brain in the same sections that are affected by cocaine,” he says. “Exercise mimics a lot of the effects of the drugs.”

Studies Suggest a Connection

A year prior to the publication of Dailey’s article about exercise and addiction, the Associated Press (AP) addressed a similar topic. A June 9, 2008, AP article reported that experts were intrigued by research indicating a connection between increased physical activity and decreased risk for substance abuse.

In addition to reporting on a Brown University study that found exercise to be an effective addition to tobacco-cessation programs, the AP article also cited the following findings related to exercise, substance use and mental health:

  • A study revealed that rats whose cages contained running wheels were less likely to ingest amphetamines than rats that didn’t have access to running wheels. 
  • The rat/wheel investigation suggested that exercise may stimulate a reward pathway in the brain, leaving the study subjects less vulnerable to the euphoric rush that results from amphetamine abuse.
  • Studies involving humans have noted that exercise serves as both a mild anti-depressant and a stress reliever.
  • Because disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression have been associated with an increased risk of alcohol abuse, substance abuse and addiction, exercise may play a role in offsetting those risks.

United in Recovery

In addition to the direct physical and mental impacts of addiction, many recovering addicts and alcoholics have found organized exercise to be a source of considerable camaraderie and support.

For example, Therese Borchard of the popular Beyond Blue blog has written about the role that group bike rides played in the early stages of her recovery.

“I don’t know if it was the dopamine high or the group support, but those bike rides gave me hope that my life didn’t have to be stoic and boring just because I was going to stay out of bars,” Borchard wrote.

This power of togetherness and its ability to assist individuals who are recovering from addiction and alcoholism was also addressed in Dailey’s “Human Condition” article:

“Boredom is a very powerful stressor,” says Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA],” and stress is what leads addicts to start using again. It’s a mechanism of the brain to motivate you to get out of your current state and do something engaging, and that can include taking drugs.”

Social interaction is also crucial to recovering addicts, who must learn to build relationships without the help of drugs or alcohol. Most addicts need to separate from their previous friends, says Volkow. “You get conditioned to the people you’ve taken drugs with. When you see that person, the brain will release dopamine that will derive intense motivation to take drugs.”

A National Call for Research

As Volkow’s comments indicate, journalists and independent researchers are hardly the only ones to have observed the connection between exercise and addiction prevention. In June 2008, NIDA convened more than 100 scientists for a two-day conference to promote additional research on this topic.

“Exercise has been shown to be beneficial in so many areas of physical and mental health,” said Volkow in a press release. “This cross-disciplinary meeting is designed to get scientists thinking creatively about its potential role in substance abuse prevention.”

In addition to bringing some of the nation’s leading experts together to discuss the relationship between exercise and addiction recovery, NIDA also announced that it would be awarding $4 million in grants to encourage further research on this topic.