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Exercise and Relapse Prevention

Exercise and relapse prevention can work hand in hand to keep substance abuse problems at bay. We have known for a long time that exercise can be an excellent outlet for stress, but new ground breaking research suggests that it can also be beneficial in preventing a drug or alcohol relapse. A large body of research has indicated that substance abuse is closely linked to stress; thus, preventing stress has been reported to be one of the biggest challenges in long term drug and alcohol addiction recovery. Many studies have concluded that exercise can decrease stress levels due to a chemical called galanin, which has been shown to increase in the brain during periods of physical activity. Just as stress has been reported to activate norepinephrine, which activates dopamine, which in turn, induces drug and alcohol cravings; galanin, on the other hand, has been shown to decrease norepinephrine, thus, someone who exercises should experience fewer drug cravings.

Logic dictates that there could only be a positive link between exercise and relapse prevention, solely based on the reward system that is activated in the brain during physical activity. Many people turn to alcohol and drugs in order to alter their mood. Regular exercise has consistently been reported to be able to improve a person's mood; additionally, being physically active can provide a person with a healthy hobby that does not involve drinking or using drugs. While using drugs or alcohol may provide a temporary mood boost, drug and alcohol addiction commonly leads to depression in the user; on the other hand, exercising regularly for as little as 30 minutes a day, for three to five days a week, has proven to cause a significant improvement in individuals that reported symptoms of depression.

Because they are both linked to the reward system in the brain, it should not be surprising that exercise and relapse prevention complement each other. After abusing drugs or alcohol for long periods of time, the reward system in the brain can suffer long-term damage; thus, it is harder for a former addict to feel happy in the absence of drugs or alcohol once they have grown dependent on getting high. At this point, when an event that "normal" people could easily take in stride happens to an individual who is a newly recovering addict, they may see the situation as more of a mountain than a molehill; thus, the stress that is related to this seemingly minor incident could make the former addict want to reach for drugs, in order to manually trigger the reward system in the brain to make them numb to the drama.

Exercise and Relapse Prevention Research

Several current government sponsored studies have indicated that there is a positive correlation between exercise and relapse prevention; additionally, there has been a push for much more of this type of research, in order to further confirm that the positive correlation between exercise and relapse prevention exists. Because exercise has been reported to be able to help an individual to feel better about them, it makes sense that it may also have the potential to help former addicts to overcome the negative thoughts that could lead to a drug or alcohol relapse. Exercise is often a part of many quality drug treatment programs, not only for the distraction that it provides, but because it has the potential to boost mood while also relieving stress and depression.

Many new studies that are related to exercise and relapse prevention, have concluded that regularly scheduled physical activity has a positive effect on individuals that are recovering from substance abuse problems. A large body of research has shown that exercise stimulates endorphins in the brain, which are neurochemicals that help stabilize our mood. Endorphins are depleted in addicts, thus leaving them with negative thoughts to go along with their addictive choices; thus, leading them into a repetitive, destructive downward cycle. Because of all of the positive benefits that are associated with exercise, a person who has struggled with a substance abuse problem can bring this positive behavior into their life to take the place of abusing drugs and alcohol.

One of the more recent studies that were related to exercise and relapse prevention was conducted at Davidson College; this research strongly suggests that physical activity may reduce the risk of a former addict experiencing a drug or alcohol relapse. In the study, mice were much less likely to ingest amphetamines if their cages had wheels that they could run on. This study further concluded that exercise reduces the rewarding effects of many drugs because it "alters the number of dopamine receptors in the brain, causing drugs such as cocaine to have less of an euphoric effect." Another study that was conducted at Brown University indicated that smokers that exercised at least three times a week while trying to quit smoking were twice as likely to succeed as those who were trying to quit and did not exercise at all.

Several years ago, a team of Iranian researchers in the city of Isfahan, decided to do a study that was related to exercise and relapse prevention. These researchers put several dozen male rats on a very strict exercise program. In this study, the animals were forced to run on a commercial grade treadmill at a gentle incline for a hour and a half each day. After their treadmill workouts, the rats were allowed 30 minutes for a brief cool-down period; after that, the rats got high on drugs. The entire point of the exercise and relapse prevention experiment, was to see if the animals would be less inclined to tap a lever for a dose of morphine. Ultimately, the rats in this experiment did take fewer hits from the lever after their treadmill workouts.

Because the research related to exercise and relapse prevention has been minimal, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently devoted a two day conference to the topic. The scientists that met shared all of their research in relation to the correlation between exercise and relapse prevention. The various studies focused on the physical, developmental and the social effects of exercise and relapse prevention; the conclusions that were drawn indicated that although there is some evidence that exercise aids in substance abuse relapse prevention, there is much that the scientists do not yet understand about the role of physical activity in preventing relapse.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) plans to fund many more studies in the future that examine the correlation between exercise and relapse prevention. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) will give almost 2 million dollars to researchers at the University of Georgia and Emory University over the next several years to provide new insight into how exercise can reduce drug cravings and prevent relapse. This new information and research related to exercise and relapse prevention could be extremely helpful to drug treatment centers throughout the United States.

Below are some of the clues that researchers have found to support the idea that exercise could become an important part of a drug or alcohol relapse prevention program;

Exercise has long been reported to act as a natural antidepressant and to relieve stress in people; on the other hand, drug and alcohol relapse problems have been reported at a much higher rate in people who are experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression.

It has been reported that attention deficit disorder and obesity both involve problems that have been linked with the brain chemical dopamine, which is the same system in the brain that drugs and alcohol have been reported to hijack to create addiction.

Research in baby monkeys has indicated that when they do not play enough in childhood, the monkeys are more likely to have problems controlling aggression as they get older; this aggressive group of monkeys also tended to have defects involving the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. When aggressive monkeys that lack serotonin were offered alcohol, they were reported to binge drink.

Researchers have concluded that exercise provides numerous psychological and physical benefits, and can reduce the anxiety that often is present prior to a drug or alcohol relapse.

How Exercise Decreases Anxiety and Depression

Exercise helps to ease anxiety and depression, which have both been reported to be contributing factors in many instances of a drug or alcohol relapse; physical activity decreases anxiety and depression in a number of different ways, which may include:

By releasing feel-good brain chemicals (endorphins) that have been reported to ease depression and be effective in altering an individual's mood

Exercise has been reported to increase body temperature, which can have a calming effect on the body.

Exercise has also been shown to have many psychological and emotional benefits, including but not limited to:

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, physical activity helps a person that is in recovery for a drug or alcohol addiction to be able to cope in a healthy way.-Doing something positive like exercising, in order to manage anxiety or depression, can be an extremely healthy coping strategy for a newly recovered addict; on the other hand, trying to feel better by drinking or using drugs, dwelling on how bad you feel, or hoping that the negative feelings just go away magically on their own, can only lead to worsening symptoms.

In terms of exercise and relapse prevention, participating in regular physical activity can assist a person that is in recovery for addiction, by increasing their confidence level-Meeting various exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost an individual's confidence; additionally, getting into shape can also make a person feel more confident about their physical appearance.

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, many physical activities promote social interaction-Exercise will often give a former addict an opportunity to meet and socialize with others; just exchanging pleasantries or a friendly smile as you walk in your neighborhood can often help your mood.

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, staying busy with physical activities will take the individual's mind off of thinking about drugs or alcohol- Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from negative thoughts that tend to feed anxiety and depression.

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, regular physical activity decreases depression and anxiety-Exercise has been shown to alleviate both depression and anxiety, which are often precursors to a drug or alcohol relapse. Doing as little as thirty minutes or more of exercise a day for at least three times a week has clinically proven to significantly improve many of the symptoms that are associated with anxiety and depression; additionally, current research indicates that doing more rigorous exercises, such as bicycling or jogging, for as little as 10 or 15 minutes at a time, can be almost as effective. When an individual chooses these more rigorous activities, it may take less time exercising to improve their mood. It is extremely important to remember that exercise will benefit a person who has struggled with addiction the most if they stick to it, long term; this is another really good reason to focus of finding physical activities that you actually enjoy.

When a person that has struggled with addiction acknowledges that a positive correlation exists between exercise and relapse prevention, they will be more likely to start and stick to a regular exercise routine. Below are some steps that an individual in recovery can take, that can help them get started:

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, a person in recovery should identify a physical activity that they would enjoy doing-For instance, would you enjoy some rigorous gardening in the evening after work, or are you a morning person that would prefer a pre-dawn jog?

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, the former addict should always set reasonable and realistic goals.

In relation to exercise and relapse prevention, an individual in recovery for a drug or alcohol addiction should tailor their exercise plan to meet their own unique needs and abilities, rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that they are unlikely to meet.