Fighting an addiction of any kind may be one of the most difficult things you will ever do in your life. Relapse rates are notoriously high among recovering addicts – as many as 60% will relapse at some point, and the number is even higher during the first 60 days of recovery – but you don’t have to be just another statistic. Adding physical exercise to your treatment program can greatly reduce your chances of a relapse, and provide a number of other health benefits as well.
Exercise Releases Endorphins
Often called the “happy hormones,” endorphins are hormone-like chemicals that your brain releases whenever you exercise. Some of the most well-known endorphins include serotonin, which is crucial for fighting the depression and anxiety that many recovering addicts feel, and dopamine. Dopamine is the endorphin that signals your brain to enjoy what you are doing, and to keep doing it. The production of dopamine is especially important for a recovering addict, because it helps you find other things to enjoy in life apart from drugs or alcohol. Other ways of triggering the release of endorphins include taking ginseng, eating dark chocolate, and laughing.
Exercise Produces Testosterone
Another key hormone that is released when you exercise is testosterone. It is the dominant male hormone, but women need testosterone as well. This hormone helps turn fat into muscle, and low levels of it contribute to more problems than just low libido. Weight gain (because your fat never turns into muscle), lack of energy, sleep disorders, muscle weakness, and depression are all common symptoms of low testosterone. These symptoms can make staying clean and sober much more difficult than it has to be, so exercising regularly can help improve hormonal imbalances and keep away the weight gain, depression, and other symptoms that often affect recovering addicts.
Exercise Improves Mental Function
Having fun and feeling good aren’t the only benefits that exercise provides. Numerous studies have shown that exercise actually improves mental function by improving your memory, enhancing your reasoning and problem-solving abilities, and even reducing the amount of time between brain signal and action (psychomotor speed). Addicts often have reduced or impaired mental function in these areas, so physical exercise may help repair some of the damage that months or years of drug use has caused.
Exercise Improves Heart Health
Aerobic exercise, like walking, jogging, or swimming, is incredibly good for your heart. While problems with your cardiovascular system may not seem like an immediate threat while you are in alcohol rehab or another type of treatment facility, your heart health actually plays a major role in your ability to recover from the physical problems that your addiction may have caused or exacerbate. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other heart conditions suppress the immune system, which inhibits your body’s natural ability to heal itself. Along with a healthy diet low in added sugar and salt, exercise is one of the best ways to improve heart health.
Exercise Helps Your Body Eliminate Toxins
Your body is constantly getting rid of the toxins that it accumulates every day from food, drinks, the air you breathe, and just about anything else that you put in your body. These toxins can make you susceptible to a number of different illnesses, including cancer, so helping your body get rid of them is one of the best ways to prevent health problems. Toxins are eliminated in a number of ways, but the two major ways are through urine and sweat. As you exercise, you burn toxin-laden fat cells, and as the fat turns to muscle most of the toxins are excreted through your sweat. This process is yet another reason why exercise is particularly beneficial to recovering addicts, who could have years of chemical toxins from drugs stored in their fat cells.
As you begin your new life as a recovering addict, make it a daily habit to walk for at least 30 minutes every day. Even this simple aerobic exercise can provide many of the benefits listed above. If you can, you may consider working with a professional trainer, who will help you create a more targeted exercise program. Participating in sports is another great way to get those endorphins flowing and your heart pumping. In fact, many long-term recovery programs include physical activities through equine therapy, restorative yoga, and other forms of activity-based therapies. However you choose to work out, a moderate amount of exercise every day will significantly reduce your chances of a relapse and make your fight with addiction more rewarding.
Joanie Fellows works in adult mental health services and likes to share her insights with an online audience. She has previously posted her thoughts on mental health and lifestyle websites.