Exercise Leads to Positive Results in Recovery

Exercise Leads to Positive Results in Recovery

Regular exercise has always been recommended by doctors for multitudes of physical ailments and conditions—but exercise can mean a whole lot more when it comes to substance addiction recovery. In traditional alcohol and drug abuse treatment, both inpatient and outpatient recovery facilities recognize the importance of detoxification, rehabilitation, and aftercare maintenance which includes the application of cognitive-behavioral therapies and pharmacological agents. However, the most modern practices are considering the incorporation of daily or weekly exercise regimens for patients due to the multifaceted benefits it provides recovering addicts.

In general, exercise is known to be a practical form of distraction that can reduce depression and anxiety. Physical fitness can help purge the body of stress, tension, and illness by amending an immune system that has been impaired by depression and anxiety disorders. Surprisingly, little research has been done on the effects of exercise in adjunct to addiction treatment, even though exercise helps facilitate much needed lifestyle changes that are required during maintenance aftercare.

Some research available proves that exercise has created lasting positive effects on patients’ lives during recovery. Not only is physical health enhanced during the rehabilitation stage, but psychological health, lifestyle behavior, self-perception, self-esteem, level of stress, coping mechanisms, and social support are also improved. Physical activity may become a viable (and healthy) replacement for compulsive drug intake habits that experienced addicts develop, and can essentially reinforce the same pleasurable physical experience that drug use once provided the bodily system.

Exercise provides an emotional sense of enjoyment and satisfaction after having accomplished a physical exercise; in exercise programs that involve a group of patients, recovering addicts may gain a sense of self-worth and better self-image that is reinforced by team-encouragement and leadership. Exercise during rehabilitation and beyond has also shown to significantly decrease the potential for relapse. These benefits, among many other positive gains from physical activity, encourage recovered addicts’ continued exercise practices and healthy mentalities after recovery.

In Faulkner and Taylor’s 2006 edited collection, Exercise, Health, and Mental Health: Emerging Relationships, Marie Donaghy and Michael Ussher report on several treatment facilities that have been studied for their exercise programs which included aerobics, meditation, cardiovascular workouts, strength training, or traditional sports such as baseball/softball, biking, or running/jogging. Although Donaghy and Ussher note that limited research was available on the subject of exercise in conjunction with alcohol and drug addiction rehabilitation at the time of their study, they found “unequivocal support that physical exercise regimens have a positive effect on aerobic fitness and strength if administered as an adjunct in alcohol rehabilitation” for recovering addicts, and that exercise regimens may potentially reduce depression and anxiety (which are believed to provoke relapse), suppress alcohol cravings, and improve abstinence from alcohol when combined with addiction rehabilitation.

An added perk of exercise intervention is the attention to flexibility, balance, control, and coordination that physical activities require; these concepts align with addiction recovery’s therapeutic emphasis on attaining self-control, becoming goal-oriented, and developing positive, lasting habits that break away from repetitive drug routine behavior. Substance abusers will have considerably damaged their physical health prior to addiction treatment; by undergoing a physical fitness regimen, these patients can restore their physical health and renew their participation in a variety of activities they once enjoyed but lost to addiction.

In the 2009 edition of Principles of Addiction Medicine, Dr. James O. Prochaska states that “physical activity helps manage moods, stress, and distress. Also, 60 minutes per week of exercise can provide a recovering person with more than 50 health and mental health benefits. Exercise thus should be prescribed to all sedentary patients with addiction.”

Additionally, alternative physical activities, such as breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, or prayer have also been connected to significant reductions in alcohol consumption for alcoholics. Murphy, Pagano, and Marlatt concluded in their 1986 study, "Lifestyle Modification with Heavy Alcohol Drinkers: Effects of Aerobic Exercise and Meditation," that regular meditation practice and daily aerobic exercise were especially effective in reducing alcohol use among heavy drinkers and produced a sense of self-control and balance. Shonna Porter, a mental health practitioner and exercise physiologist from Gig Harbor, WA, incorporates cognitive-behavioral therapy and physical fitness regimens for her clients to help treat depression, anxiety, and addiction disorders. Porter believes that behavioral disorders—such as food addictions, eating disorders, sex addiction, Internet addiction, and mood disorders—are rooted in emotional, physiological issues that have not been properly dealt with or managed. Emotional suppression, Porter teaches, directly affects the decisions one makes and the way one manages himself or herself physically due to distressed self-image. She treats her clients with an emphasis on the mind-body connection, based on the belief that a healthy state of mind and healthy body work together in producing a healthy lifestyle.

Conclusively, exercise unites the mind, body, and spirit by activating will power, motivation, desire, self-reliance, and self-awareness. Gaining coordination over one’s thoughts, emotions, and body generates a rewarding sense of self-satisfaction, capability, and physical and mental strength. Many recovering addicts who participated in a fitness and/or meditation regimen reported continuing their exercises months after completing recovery as well as making significant physical lifestyle changes in their everyday lives. Mindfulness became their overall coping mechanism for successful recovery and healing.

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