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Exercise as therapy for addiction

As an addiction counselor, I recommend exercise as an important technique for substance abuse recovery. Exercise is one of many positive coping skills (methods to deal with stress) and an outlet that involves taking better care of yourself physically. For some, exercise might just serve as a distraction to help get through cravings. For others, it might bring a sense of accomplishment or something that brings joy. No matter the purpose, exercise can be an important tool in addiction recovery.

While exercise alone is not a cure for addiction, there are some primary benefits one can get from exercise during treatment and recovery.

Restore brain's balance. During exercise, a safe and natural high is created by releasing neurotransmitters (endorphins) that work to restore the brain's balance of "happiness-inducing" chemicals—a balance that is disrupted by alcohol and drug abuse.

Reduce stress. Too much anxiety or stress can trigger a relapse or increase one's desire to return to one's addiction. Any type of exercise, from gentle yoga to high-intensity workouts like running, can act as a form of moving meditation. It helps you to forget the day's irritations and concentrate only on your movements.

Improve sleep. Many people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction suffer from insomnia because of the brain-altering effects of the chemicals ingested. Regular aerobic exercise can serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep. The aerobic workouts seem to mute one's stress response, allowing you to sleep better and longer.

Build healthy relationships. Forming new relationships that don't revolve around the addiction can have a substantial impact on recovery. Playing team sports, like basketball, or participating in an individual sport, like cycling, can help you find a community of people who also enjoy exercise and build camaraderie.

For those who are subject to addictive tendencies, it is important to not go overboard with a new obsession, like exercise. When used with a recovery program, exercise can help keep addictive behaviors at bay and may even lead to additional healthy lifestyle choices.

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