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The physical toll that addiction takes on the mind and body can be severe, and left untreated, chemical dependency destroys lives and, in many cases, winds up being fatal. According to National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs is a factor in more than a 100,000 deaths in the U.S. every year.
However, medical science, along with personal testimony from recovering addicts, is showing that regular exercise can be effective in breaking and managing the cycle of dependence.
Psychiatrists, psychologists and physicians have long known that consistent physical activity is great at combating depression. Not only does it relieve stress and anxiety, exercise creates chemical reactions in the body that have numerous benefits.
Exercise isn’t a way to completely replace an addiction. But for those who have completed a treatment program or are in recovery, exercise is a way to stay focused on something positive, serves as a distraction from triggers, produces endorphins to feel good, provides goals to achieve and creates a sense of purpose.
The Benefits of Regular Exercise for Recovery Include:
- The production of endorphins, pleasure inducing hormones that also aid in the reduction of pain
- Greatly improves the quality of sleep, which is vital to overall mental and physical health
- Combats the depression many recovering addicts cope with that often leads to relapse
- Assists in weight loss and strength gains that add to a positive self-image
- Provides a routine structure as an alternative to destructive behaviors and habits
- Can provide a healthy new community of friends and supporters
- Has addictive qualities that can take the place of chemical dependencies
The rapper, Eminem, aka Marshall Bruce Mathers, struggled with a serious addiction to prescription painkillers. At the height of his dependence, he took as many as 60 pills a day. In an interview, Eminem said, “The coating on the Vicodin and the Valium I’d been taking for years leaves a hole in your stomach, so to avoid a stomachache, I was constantly eating.” At one point, he carried 230 pounds on his 5’8″ frame.
During and after treatment for his addiction, Mathers had intense insomnia and turned to exercise, working his way up to running 17 miles a day. “It gave me a natural endorphin high,” he says. “But it also helped me sleep. It’s easy to understand how people replace addiction with exercise.”
Clinical studies on the effects of exercise and addiction have shown similar results. At Brown University, researchers found that among the alcoholics they tested, those that exercised regularly had fewer drinking days and fewer heavy-drinking days than those that didn’t exercise consistently. “[Participants] like the fact that they were getting healthy and doing something for themselves,” wrote one of the study’s authors.
In 2008, NIDA gave $4 million toward research on physical activity and drug use. Human trials are now taking place, but preclinical tests offered evidence that exercise can help treat and even prevent addiction. Most experts agree, though, that simply exercising is not a replacement for the treatment of addiction. For those with a dependency on opioids and alcohol, withdrawal can be extremely severe and creates medical issues if not monitored.
Starting an exercise regimen doesn’t have to be difficult. People who begin exercising at an easier pace, perhaps walking several miles a day or riding a bike, are more apt to stay consistent than those who immediately crank up the intensity. By starting slowly and sticking with a regular routine, it’s actually possible to exercise your way to better overall mental and physical health.