An addiction can begin innocently enough. One more little drink after dinner becomes five or six. Drug use at parties becomes drug use before work. Soon, it seems as though you’re spending all of your free time either buying, planning to buy or using the substances you crave. All of your other hobbies, your previous passions, your relationships and maybe even your health are consumed by the addiction and your need to quell those cravings. In order to recover, you’ll need to correct that damage, and you’ll need to come up with new and positive ways to fill your free time. Exercise, or fitness therapy, might provide you with an ideal way to do just that.
*Preparing for Exercise
Most addiction recovery programs will provide you with the majority of the equipment you’ll need to perform your exercise therapy. But, there are some things you’ll need to have on hand in order to participate. For example, you’ll need comfortable athletic shoes with good arch support. Flip-flops, boots and heels are all too uncomfortable to work out in, and most facilities won’t allow you to go barefoot. You’ll also need a variety of shorts and shirts that can get soiled with sweat. Working out is messy business, so you’ll need clothes that can take the heat.
Exercise and Addiction Recovery
If you’ve used drugs like heroin, cocaine or marijuana, it’s likely that those drugs have changed your brain on a chemical level. These drugs work like heat-seeking missiles, targeting specific receptors in the brain and changing the way those receptors work. In response to this assault, some of these receptors become damaged and don’t work as well as they should. Others no longer work at all. This could cause you to take higher doses of drugs in order to get high, but it could also cause you to feel chronically unhappy when you don’t have drugs. The damage stays behind.
Exercise can produce high levels of some of the very same chemicals your body is accustomed to receiving through drugs. For example, according to a study published in the journal NeuroReport, running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike can cause the body to stimulate the endocannabinoid system. This is the very same system that is stimulated when you take in marijuana. By exercising, you might get the same benefits of drugs, without the drugs.
Similarly, a study outlined in Science Daily suggests that exercise can help reduce cravings. In this study, hamsters who ran on a wheel were less likely to consume alcohol than hamsters that did not run. The so-called “lazy” hamsters were more likely to return to alcohol use, while the hamsters that did run were less likely to guzzle alcohol. It would have been ideal if the researchers had attempted to convert the lazy hamsters to exercising hamsters, but it’s likely a study just like this is happening somewhere in the world at this very moment.
As these studies make clear, exercise does seem to have the ability to help replace some of the chemicals the brain craves after substance abuse, and exercise does seem to have the ability to reduce cravings, which might help to prevent a relapse. It’s easy to see why exercise might be considered so important in an addiction recovery program, as it seems to have so many important benefits.
*What Counts as Exercise?
Your therapist will likely pull together your exercise program in the early days, but as time goes on, you’ll have the ability to design your own fitness program. If working out on machines leaves you feeling uninspired, try these fitness alternatives:
- Playing basketball
- Ice skating
- Running with the dog
- Riding a bike
Exercise and Lifestyle
Your recovery means more than just replacing chemicals and squelching cravings. As you’ll hear in therapy, you’ll need to develop a new way of thinking and behaving, and that might involve learning new ways to deal with stress. Exercise might have an important role to play here as well. At the end of a workday, when you’re tired and upset and you might want to have a drink, you can strap on your running shoes and take a jog around the block instead. You’ll come home sweaty, tired and feeling a sense of accomplishment that might help to alleviate your stress.
Exercise has also been linked with an improved ability to sleep. For example, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that teens who exercised vigorously had a higher quality of sleep, were able to fall asleep faster, woke up fewer times in the night and were less tired during the day when compared to teens who did not exercise vigorously. Some types of addictions can interfere with your sleep cycle, making it difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep. In addition, you might be accustomed to using drugs or alcohol to help you sleep. Exercise may help you to fill that gap.
Addictions can also cause a significant amount of physical damage. Alcohol, with its high caloric content, can cause you to gain a significant amount of weight. Smoking drugs can give you a chronic cough. Methamphetamine use can cause you to lose massive amounts of muscle. These changes can leave you feeling unhealthy and unattractive. Not surprisingly, exercise can also help you here. As you grow fit and your body changes, you might feel an increased sense of confidence and well-being.
*What About Weightlifting?
Pumping iron can make your muscles jump and give you an extra boost of confidence, but many addiction programs seem to focus on providing aerobic exercises. These are the movements that get the blood pumping and the muscles moving, and they seem to be associated with the greatest release of beneficial chemicals. Weightlifting might have its place, but it’s not typically the focus of these types of programs. You can certainly do these exercises on your own, however, if you find them fun and beneficial.
A Typical Program
Addiction treatment programs can use exercise in a variety of ways, but many follow these basic outlines. Once each week, you’re asked to participate in some form of supervised exercise with a trainer. Before you start, you’ll have a physical to make sure you’re well enough for exercise, and the trainer will stay right there to make sure you don’t overstrain or hurt yourself. Almost any exercise will do, but many programs use standard gym equipment, such as treadmills, stationary bikes and rowing machines. The goal of the exercise session is to help you break a sweat and release natural feel-good chemicals, and this means you’ll have to work out at a high intensity. A simple walk won’t do the trick. You’ll need to run until you’re a bit sweaty and tired. Most sessions last between 30 minutes and an hour.
Your therapist might also provide you with education on topics such as:
- Setting goals for an exercise program
- Staying motivated to exercise
- Using exercise to improve your mood
- How to warm up and cool down
- Making plans to stick with your exercise regimen
On days when you don’t have a formal exercise session, you’ll still need to do some form of physical activity. Some people use the facility’s gym for this purpose (which might be especially true if you’re in an inpatient program for addiction), but you could also use a community gym, a home gym or your own neighborhood as the setting for your workouts.
*Slow and Steady Wins the Race
If it’s been years since you worked out, you will want to take your exercise sessions slow and easy. Pushing yourself too hard, too fast could cause pain and discomfort, and this could keep you away from exercising for the following days as you heal. Pain could also force a relapse to substance use and abuse. It’s best to move at a measured pace, following the advice of your trainer, in order to avoid injury.
Any program that allows you to feel better about yourself and stay away from substances of abuse should be considered beneficial. But, scientists often want more hard data about how interventions work, so they can prove to doubters that these programs are worth following in the long run. Exercise has proven to be quite effective in many studies. For example, in one study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 58 people were asked to perform a vigorous activity for one hour per day, five days per week. At a three-month follow-up, 69.3 percent of these members were abstinent of alcohol, compared to 36.9 percent of controls. Participating in exercise seems to have demonstrable results.
It’s worth repeating that exercise should be performed after a physical, to ensure that you’re healthy enough to get started. While you might be motivated to start exercising right now, whether or not you’re in a treatment program for addiction, it’s best to get approval from the doctor first. Exercise can be dangerous for some people, so it pays to be cautious.
Some people develop a compulsive need to exercise, replacing a substance abuse issue with an exercise addiction issue. While this is rare, it’s something to watch for as you develop an exercise program. These warning signs might indicate that an exercise addiction is forming:
- Exercising for two or more hours per day, each day
- Avoiding activities that aren’t related to exercise
- Hiding workouts from others
- Following the same workout plan, day in and day out
- Exercising when sick or in pain
If you notice these symptoms, talk to your doctor. You might need to use a few techniques you learned in substance abuse recovery to control this compulsive use of exercise.
If you’d like help locating a treatment program that incorporates fitness therapy into its offerings, contact us today. There are high-quality options available all across the country.