Physical Exercise Essential in Addiction Recovery

A refrain often heard in clinical settings, hospitals and even in household kitchens before mealtimes: “Wash your hands!” Today, washing our hands is almost automatic routine, and the idea that it helps keep germs at bay and reduces the likelihood of catching a cold or virus seems obvious to us now. But both of these practices have only been widespread in the last century.

Prior to that, even well-meaning doctors who were medically advanced had patients dying from a simple lack of understanding about germs.

Encouraging Health Is Encouraging Recovery

In the field of addiction recovery, it’s increasingly clear that encouraging the physical health of the patient is as crucial to their recovery and continued sobriety as hand washing is for good hygiene.

More and more treatment centers are turning to an approach that focuses not only on the mental recovery of their patients but their emotional and physical recovery as well due to the benefits of exercise in addiction recovery.

In an article published by the National Institutes of Health in 2010, “Aerobic Exercise for Alcohol Recovery: Rationale, Program Description, and Preliminary Findings”, Brown, et. al noted the various benefits that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may have when incorporated with a recovery plan. They noted: Exercise may;

  1. provide pleasurable states without the use of alcohol
  2. reduce depressive symptoms and negative mood
  3. increase self-efficacy
  4. provide positive alternatives for drinking
  5. decrease stress reactivity and improve coping and
  6. decrease urges to drink

These same benefits may be present for those with nicotine or other drug addictions.

Combating Co-Occurring Mental Illness

Girl getting the Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery by playing volleyballSubstance and alcohol abuse typically co-occurs with psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety and the ability to combat this propensity through moderate and healthy exercise has been piquing the interest of treatment centers worldwide.

Almost 90% of participants in such trials report decreased withdrawal symptoms such as “stress, anxiety, tension, poor concentration, irritability and restlessness during and following exercise, although exercise interventions were of variable intensity”.

The Most Anxious Time of Treatment: Detox

“The detox and withdrawal portion of recovery is often the most anxious time for our guests”, noted Barnett Gilmer, owner of Gulf Breeze Recovery, a non-12 step drug rehab located in Gulf Breeze, Florida. “Often people will continue using just to avoid becoming sick, even after they mentally want to quit.

“Our recovery program includes a licensed medical detox wing with a Board Certified Addictionologist and 24-hour nursing care to take the anxiety out of the detox process. We also encourage our guests to begin light exercise under our supervision as soon as they feel they are physically able to help speed up the return to their natural physical health.”

There Is Still a Huge Gap in Treatment

feet-186238_640According to the NIDA, in 2013, an estimated 22 million Americans needed treatment for a problem related to drugs or alcohol, but only about 10% of those people received treatment at a specialty facility. There continues to be an enormous need for substance and alcohol abuse treatment services, but more importantly, there needs to be reform of the industry as a whole.

It is no longer enough to focus just on the addiction or rely solely on psychological therapy to ensure long-lasting success and low relapse rates. If there is to be a lasting change for an individual, we must treat the whole patient, and encourage them to adopt healthy physical practices along with a solid treatment program.

The Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Regular moderate exercise decreases stress hormones and increases growth factors in the brain, setting the patient on the right track to not only be physically but emotionally more healthy and much less likely to relapse.

There are even preliminary indicators of the benefits of exercise in addiction recovery as aerobic exercise not only helps improve the functions within the brain but can even help damaged brain cells make repairs.

All of this seems to make a compelling case to not only offer physical exercise as an option in drug and alcohol rehab settings but to make it an integral part of the recovery process, monitored by the physicians and medical teams who help ease patients through their rehab programs.

Hopefully breaking through the misunderstanding that physical health isn’t essential to the permanent change and recovery from a deadly addiction to drugs or alcohol will help save lives in the same way that washing our hands has.

About the Author:

Krista Smith is an author and lead facilitator at Gulf Breeze Recovery in Gulf Breeze, Florida. Krista helped develop and refine the Total Health Recovery program in use there and is currently working on her masters in Psychology.


  1. Brown, R. A., Abrantes, A. M., Read, J. P., Marcus, B. H., Jakicic, J., Strong, D. R., … Gordon, A. A. (2009). Aerobic Exercise for Alcohol Recovery: Rationale, Program Description, and Preliminary Findings. Behavior Modification, 33(2), 220–249. doi:10.1177/0145445508329112
  2. Greer, T. L., Ring, K. M., Warden, D., Grannemann, B. D., Church, T. S., Somoza, E., … Trivedi, M. H. (2012). Rationale for Using Exercise in the Treatment of Stimulant Use Disorders. The Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice, 6(1),
  3. Gomez-Pinilla, F., & Kostenkova, K. (2008). The Influence of Diet and Physical Activity on Brain Repair and Neurosurgical Outcome. Surgical Neurology, 70(4), 333–336. doi:10.1016/j.surneu.2008.05.023

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addiction. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on July 22nd, 2015
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