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Exercise and Addiction Recovery

picture of Joe Gilmore
Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 10, 2023 (Originally Published)

November 16, 2023 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

Is there a link between exercise and addiction recovery? 

Well, for many people in the early phases of treatment for alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, regular exercise can be a valuable component of a comprehensive treatment plan. For this reason, many treatment centers offer you access to experiential and adventure therapies

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Using drink or drugs to excess impacts the body and mind. Addiction triggers structural and functional changes to the brain, altering your body chemistry. 

When you remove substances from the equation, withdrawal symptoms manifest as the body tries to recalibrate. Feelings of anxiety and depression commonly occur during detox and withdrawal, along with a heightened sensitivity to life’s stressors. 

There’s some good news, though. Physical activity can help you to scythe through some of these negative emotions, whether you’re just starting your recovery journey or you’re looking for a new challenge in your sober life. There are also many proven benefits to exercise and addiction recovery.

Fitness in Recovery

Epidemiological studies consistently show that those who regularly engage in aerobic exercise are less likely to abuse substances. 

This review of evidence suggests that exercise affects the same signaling molecules and structures that deliver the positive and reinforcing effects of drugs. Resultantly, exercise could play an important role at various stages of the recovery process by simulating the rewarding effects of substances, but without the damaging downside. 

A body of evidence from animal studies shows that rats using an exercise wheel used less of the substances – morphine, nicotine, amphetamine –  provided in dispensers than those who did not use the exercise wheel. 

While the relationship between exercise and addiction is still being researched, you will find that most decent treatment centers offer a range of holistic therapies and exercise options, including: 

  • Yoga
  • Hiking
  • Aerobics
  • Swimming
  • Running
  • Walking
  • Tennis

The scope of activities provided will depend on the treatment center in question. Essentially, any form of physical activity that suits your tastes and fitness level can be beneficial when incorporated into an integrated treatment plan.

Exercise and Alcohol Recovery

This review of studies explores the relationship between exercise interventions and those with alcohol use disorder. After an analysis of 61 studies, researchers concluded the following: 

  1. Exercise can be effective as an adjunctive treatment for alcohol use disorder
  2. Exercise interventions could lead to decreased alcohol consumption
  3. Overall fitness is improved

This study also shows that exercise has unexplored potential as a form of supplementary treatment for alcohol use disorder in the following areas: 

  • Improving mood
  • Reducing the intensity of withdrawal symptoms
  • Minimizing cravings
  • Lessening the chance of relapse
  • Repairing neurological damage

Researchers stress the need for ongoing and targeted research in this area. 

Exercise alone is not enough to help you combat alcohol use disorder, though. Through counseling and psychotherapy, you’ll discover what caused your addiction to alcohol. More importantly, you’ll learn how to navigate life’s everyday stressors without resorting to the bottle. If exercise is weaved into an overarching treatment plan, it can be an invaluable component, not to mention intrinsically enjoyable. 

How about exercising during the withdrawal stage, then? 

Does Exercise Help with Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal typically unfolds over five days. 

Withdrawal symptoms occur as your body and brain struggle to cope without the substance they have grown to depend on. These can be so unpleasant and uncomfortable that you want to drink just to make the symptoms disappear. 

Regardless of the intensity of withdrawal symptoms you experience while detoxing from alcohol, you are liable to experience powerful cravings. 

Beyond this, you are also likely to encounter these symptoms: 

Research shows that moderate exercise can help reduce cravings for substances in those recovering from addiction. 

There is also a deep evidence base demonstrating the positive effects of exercise for lifting your mood.

While exercise can be beneficial for alleviating withdrawal symptoms and minimizing cravings, how about once you are on the road to recovery proper?

Finding a Gym for Recovering Addicts

Sober living comes with many challenges. 

If you have been spending inordinate amounts of time obtaining, using, and recovering from substances, you may find your days now seem empty. By incorporating exercise into your day, you can not only reap the physical and mental benefits, but you’ll also fill time rather than looking to simply kill time.

 As you ease into sober life and maintain a regular exercise schedule, you should find you look and feel better. Your sleep should improve and you should also notice benefits in terms of mood and stress levels. 

Search online for any gyms in your area targeted at recovering addicts if you like the idea of exercising with others undergoing similar experiences. 

If you fail to come up with any suitable options near you, you can be sure of one thing at any gym: the members will be embracing a healthy lifestyle.

Get Aftercare at Renaissance Recovery

Here at Renaissance Recovery, you’ll benefit from evidence-based outpatient treatment to help you combat alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder. 

Our IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) give you access to MAT (medication-assisted treatment), psychotherapy, and counseling alongside holistic therapies. 

Not only will you leave TDRC with a firm foundation in place for sustained recovery, but you will also enjoy a robust aftercare plan. We are here to support you throughout your journey to sobriety via our alumni program. 

If you’re ready to turn your back on substance abuse and reclaim your life, reach out to Renaissance Recovery today at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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