The Importance of Fitness in Recovery from Addiction

One of the harmful consequences of drug and alcohol abuse is neglecting physical fitness. By the time patients develop a substance use disorder (SUD) requiring treatment, they have almost always forsaken anything resembling a healthy lifestyle. Substance abuse often leads to irregular eating patterns and poor nutrition. Previously healthy individuals may begin to experience significant secondary health problems once an addiction has developed.

Most people with a dependency on illicit opioids are underweight, chiefly as a result of malnutrition rather than a pharmacological effect of the drugs. People who are spending all their time and money on drugs and alcohol have less time and energy to spend on food, personal hygiene, or healthcare. Their entire focus in life is on drugs and alcohol, and they usually have no interest in jogging or going to the gym.

These habits need to be changed in addiction treatment. But it’s not only about reversing previous neglect. Strengthening mind and body has become an increasingly important weapon in the fight against addiction.

Rebuilding Mind and Body

When done right, physical exercise has numerous health benefits. In recovery, the most important one is stress relief. Physical activity can improve the mood of the patient. Since SUDs are frequently driven by co-occurring mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, wellness programs can have a positive impact on the underlying causes of the substance abuse.

Instead of self-medicating intolerable stress and emotional pain by misusing illicit drugs and alcohol, patients learn to rely on healthier methods of stress relief. Good nutrition, physical exercise, and meditation may help rebuild a healthy metabolism compromised by substance abuse, strengthen bones and muscles weakened by neglect, and control cravings triggered by feeling sad or anxious.

It may also boost self-esteem. Most people in active addiction are plagued by feelings of shame and a negative body image. This in turn provides a strong impetus to continue with the substance abuse in the attempt to contain those feelings. Setting up an exercise plan and sticking to it may give you a sense of achievement and can increase your overall confidence. Working out is good for body and mind.

How does fitness training achieve these effects? “When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins,” explains WebMD. “These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain.” They also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. In fact, the term “endorphin” is a contraction of  "endogenous morphine,” i.e., an opiate your body supplies naturally. Endorphins produce a natural high and are obviously far less dangerous than exogenous psychoactive substances. Regular exercise helps improve sleeping patterns, provides greater energy, and generally enhances well-being, all of which make recovery more manageable.

Taken to extremes, exercise can become a problem, though. The euphoria that may follow a long run or strenuous workout—occasionally known as a "runner's high"—sometimes turns into the foundation of a replacement addiction.

Regaining a Natural Balance

In addiction treatment, patients need to learn again how to enjoy natural forms of elation. But it is important to calibrate a regime of physical activity to individual needs and capabilities. Fitness specialists and addiction therapists should determine what amount of physical exercise is appropriate for each patient to avoid injuries and addictive replacement behaviors.

Healthy physical activity will support a sustained recovery in accordance with the Roman dictum mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”), while addiction unleashes a tortured mind on a vulnerable body.