Honu House Hawaii Logo



Explaining the Links Between Exercise, Stress, and Addiction Recovery

How Does Exercise Help with the Recovery Process?

For many people, high levels of stress are just a normal part of everyday life. But did you know that there’s a link between stress and addiction cycles? Physical, emotional, and mental stressors can all contribute to the formation of substance abuse and addiction. Moreover, there’s also a link between exercise and addiction.

While many therapies can help you manage stress during the recovery process, one of the most effective and accessible is exercise.

What Does Research Say About Exercise and Addiction?

Exercise can’t address the root causes of chronic stress on its own, it’s an important part of the healing process. This makes it a great resource in helping those recover from many types of substance abuse.

Another recent study has highlighted the strong link between alcohol use disorders and depression. For such co-occurring disorders, exercise like aerobics and strength training yield positive and often immediate results. This research has led to exercise programs becoming more and more popular as a supplementary therapy in drug and alcohol treatment centers.

But why does exercise prove so helpful for those in recovery? In short, the answer is the complex human organ known as the brain.

How Does Exercise Affect Brain Chemistry?

Physical exercise stimulates what is known as the “reward center” of the brain. If you’re in recovery or know someone who is, this term probably sounds familiar. The reward center of the brain can directly effect your mood, emotions, and pain-pleasure signals and regulates dopamine, serotonin, and other chemicals. Dopamine and serotonin are produced by positive behaviors, which include rigorous exercise and physical activity.

While it’s true that drugs and alcohol trigger these same chemical responses in the brain, exercise can also achieve the same response. Feelings of euphoria, a pleasurable “high,” and an overall positive outlook on life can be experienced through exercise. What a better way to be healthy and retrain the brain!

What are the Benefits of Exercise for Addiction?

Although exercise should not be seen as the sole treatment for addiction recovery, it has major benefits and is an important addition to any long-term recovery treatment plan. Some of these benefits include:

  • Stress Reduction: After leaving residential treatment, one of the most common causes of relapse is stress. Taking extra caution with stress triggers is important since stress probably played a role in your early addiction cycle. But exercise releases endorphins which reduce stress and make you feel good—both during and after physical exertion. Exercise also increases blood circulation, which can reduce your blood pressure and even minimize stressful feelings.
  • Daily Routine: Exercise can also help a person in recovery structure their day. Some forms of exercise like classes or team activities require you to attend practices and games at certain times. Other exercises will just become a rhythm of your day to day. By helping fill your schedule, exercise can be another way of having fun that doesn’t involve situations that may tempt you to drink or use.
  • Physical Health and Longevity: On top of the benefits exercise has for brain chemistry, physical activity can help prevent diabetes, improve heart and respiratory health. It can even minimize your risk for some types of cancer. Paired with good nutrition, exercise also strengthens the immune system and reduces overall inflammation responses. 
  • Psychological Healing: There are also many benefits that exercise has for the mind and general psychological health. This includes stabilizing mood swings with consistent dopamine and serotonin production. In some cases, physical exercise can even begin to heal and reverse damage from harmful substances used during addictive cycles.

What are Some of the Best Exercises to Start in Recovery?

Although any type of physical activity is better than nothing, it is important to also practice true exercise. This looks like working hard, getting your heart rate up, and, yes, sweating.

  • Cardio Exercise: If you’re not sure where to start with cardio, you can begin with fast walking for at least thirty minutes a day. Your pace should be fast enough to make you slightly out of breath and build up a sweat. Jogging and running may soon follow, provided your health advisor approves your ability to do so. There are also a number of home workouts you can do with online videos.
  • Strength Training: Building muscle is a great place to start while in recovery. It can also improve your confidence and self-esteem. Strength training can also help reduce depression symptoms, which can minimize your risk of relapse. When lifting weights, start by joining a class, gym, or working with a trainer so you make sure to avoid injury.
  • Yoga: Another type of exercise that is “low-impact” is yoga, a practice implemented in many recovery programs. Many types of yoga combine physical and mental refinement, using stretching, strengthening, breathing, and meditation. You can do yoga in a group class, with a friend, or on your own.
  • Outdoor Sports: Getting outside and spending time in nature is one of the best medicines for those in recovery. Activities like cycling, hiking, and even gardening can be good forms of exercise as well as a chance to soak up the ever-important vitamin D—the mood-improving vitamin.

Exercise as a Part of Your Holistic Treatment Plan

Remember that exercise is only one element of your broader recovery process. At Honu House, exercise is one of our six core concepts of wellness. Alongside individual counseling, support group meetings, and other parts of your recovery plan, physical exercise can yield quick and positive results.

Don’t forget to be holistic in your exercise practice. Take a day off here and there, switch up your regimen, and include other people in your activity! This will help you maintain a healthy balance in life. To learn more about exercise in addiction recovery and start your healing, reach out to a team member at Honu House today.

  • Author Profile Picture

    By John Burke

  • December 22, 2022

John Burke, founder of Honu House Hawaii, explains the powerful connection between exercise, stress management, and addiction recovery, offering transformative insights and support.

Related posts: