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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 you can use to deal with stress. It can result in you taking better care of yourself physically, as well as serve as a distraction to help beat back cravings, give you a sense of accomplishment or simply bring you joy.

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

Exercise can:

Restore your brain's balance

During exercise, a safe and natural high is created by release of neurotransmitters (endorphins) that work to restore your 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 your desire to return to your addiction. Any type of exercise, from gentle yoga to high-intensity workouts like running, can act as a form of moving meditation. Exercise can help you forget the day's irritations and concentrate only on your movements.

Improve sleep

Many people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction have insomnia due to the brain-altering effects of the chemicals ingested. Regular aerobic exercise can serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep. Aerobic workouts seem to mute your stress response, allowing you to sleep better and longer.

Build healthy relationships

Forming new relationships that don't revolve around addiction can have a substantial impact on your 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.

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

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