Exercise for Addiction Recovery

Exercising and physical activity can be a great way to help with physical and mental wellness. It can be especially beneficial for those who are in drug and alcohol addiction recovery. This unique form of “medicine” is great for healing the body and mind. Physical activity is defined as body movements that require any form of energetic expenditure. Running, walking, tennis, yoga and swimming are all forms of physical activity.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, exercising targets our physiological and psychosocial needs. In a 2014 study, researchers found that exercising can make people much more likely to refrain from drugs and alcohol. Recent studies have shown that adding physical activity as a part of addiction treatment has the potential for promising results in helping those who have a substance use disorder. There is a low barrier of entry into starting physical activity so anyone and everyone can engage. 

A young man in a blue shirt is on the floor stretching his legs before a run, participates in exercise for addiction recovery.

Medication and counseling are important tools in addiction recovery. These more traditional routes of treatment result in long term successful recovery for the majority of patients. However, research is finding that implementing physical activity can be another great alternative method for substance addiction.

How exercising affects Mental Health

According to the World Health Organization, mental health issues affect 1 in 8 people worldwide. Exercising can become a powerful tool for mental health. It helps improve mood, relieve stress and symptoms of depression. Physical activity can also aid in boosting creativity and cognition in the brain.

When you exercise, it can manipulate the dopamine signaling in the brain. Changes to the brain’s reward system alters the dopamine processing to make exercising feel like a more pleasurable sensation than doing drugs. People who exercise are less likely to use illicit drugs because it promotes a very similar response in the brain. This way, the brain can learn to naturally produce these chemicals instead of relying on outside substances to offer a similar sensation.

Substance use disorder and mental health conditions often go hand in hand. Having a dual diagnosis is not unheard of. Many people who suffer from a substance addiction also suffer from co-occurring mental health conditions or develop them as a result of their addiction. Depression and anxiety are common mental health disorders in people with addiction. Because exercising can boost dopamine production, overtime it can help alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety and other forms of psychological stress.

The impact of exercising on Physical Health

Long term use of harmful mind altering substances can cause physical damage to the brain and body. Overtime, substances damage and weaken brain cells that change natural brain chemistry. Physical activity increases neurogenesis, the neuron making process in the brain, and strengthens the health of existing neurons. Healing the brain will build a foundation to heal the rest of the body. 

According to Florance Piche, a doctoral candidate in physical activity at the University of Montreal, healthy and positive behaviors are more likely to build upon one another.  When physical health improves, it in turn becomes a great motivator to implement other healthy habits. And eventually stop using drugs. Exercising also creates a greater awareness of one’s body. This allows health and fitness to be turned into an effective tool to help reduce alcohol and drug intake.

Exercising helps to strengthen muscles and bones. It also greatly reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases that can develop with long term drug use. High intensity workouts have shown to produce the greatest results in improving mental health. During these short intense workouts, the body experiences a rush of endorphins.

All types of exercising can greatly improve the chances for a successful addiction recovery. Even the simplest forms of physical activity include jogging, pilates, yoga and strength training can be beneficial.

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Exercise treatment is beneficial for Substance Addiction Recovery

Overtime exercising can turn into a healthier substitute for cravings. Research has found that people who exercise during their drug and alcohol treatment are much more likely to reduce their use compared to those who did not. Other factors that physical activity can impact include:

  • It reduces stress – It alerts part of the brain that controls anxiety and stress. Physical activity allows people to become more aware of their mental state and help them concentrate on controlled body movements rather than stressors. During this time the brain produces endorphins that reduce feelings of pain.
  • It improves overall mental health – Regular exercise can maintain sharp thinking, learning and cognitive skills as people grow older. It can help reduce the risk of depression, which is a common symptom that occurs during addiction and recovery.
  • It helps you sleep – Poor sleep quality is a common side effect of addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Exercising helps your body’s recuperative processes that restore health and strength during proper sleep cycles. 

Because of the overwhelmingly positive benefit of exercising, some addiction recovery programs have begun to implement physical activity as a method of treatment. Other programs that exclusively focus on physical activity for drug and alcohol recovery have also yielded great results.

The Boston Bulldogs Running Club, which dates back to 2008, is an organization that supports running as a part of recovery. It’s mission is to support people with addiction and their friends and families. The nonprofit also works to promote health and wellness in teens and young adults to help prevent the development of substance use disorders.

The Phoenix is another nonprofit organization that aims to build an active community of sober people through peer led CrossFit, yoga, rock climbing, boxing, running and hiking events. It was founded in 2006 and has expanded its free programs across a number of states. It is open to anyone with at least 48 hours of sobriety as well as friends and families of those in recovery.

Reach out to Hotel California by the Sea

We specialize in treating addiction and other co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD. Our Admissions specialists are available to walk you through the best options for treating your addiction.

How to begin exercising to help in your recovery

  • Find an activity that motivates you
  • Find a goal that you want to accomplish in which that activity will help you to do
  • Set smart and attainable goals for yourself
  • Stay accountable during your journey
  • Don’t be to hard on yourself
  • Take small steps and gradually work your way up


At Hotel California by the Sea, substance abuse treatment touches every aspect of addiction. Medical treatments such as MAT and medication management help patients during the detoxing process. Cognitive treatments such as CBT, DBT and EMDR therapy target co-occurring mental health conditions.

During residential treatment patients are encouraged to participate in physical activities. The program offers a variety of opportunities to engage in group hikes/walks, gym time and other activities. Exercising and physical activity are just as important as psychological treatments when it comes to healing from alcohol and drug addiction.