4 Ways Exercise Heals the Mind, Body, and Spirit During Addiction Recovery

Tim Sonnet

Medically Reviewed By

Tim Sinnott, MFT

May 25, 2019

Article Contents

4 Ways Exercise Heals In Addiction Recovery

Article Contents

Addiction takes a real toll on the human body. Drugs and alcohol can weaken the immune system, damage internal organs and strip the body of the ability to heal itself.  Beginning a drug detox program designed to rid the body of these dangerous toxins is the first step to total recovery. Exercise too can help put those addicted to drugs and alcohol on the road to healing by providing the kind of physical, emotional and spiritual helps they need to move forward in their quest for total health and wellness.

The Role Exercise Plays in Recovery

Can exercise play a role in the recovery process? Absolutely, say researchers who have been studying the effects of exercise in the treatment of addictive behaviors. When used in conjunction with other methods of treatment (like cognitive behavioral therapy), exercise has shown the ability to addressing the physiological needs associated with addiction.

But there is more to exercise in recovery than simply using it as another form of therapy. It also was shown to be effective in helping those undergoing treatment for drug and alcohol abuse to:

  • Focus the Mind:  Those in recovery offer suffer from a reeling mind that won’t stop replaying scenes highlighting past mistakes.  One way to curb the brains’ overactive tendency to do this is to exercise. Physical activity is shown to clear the mind, refocus thoughts and adopt a healthier mindset.
  • Curb Cravings: Feeling the need for a controlled substance is common during the recovery period. What most people do not realize is that those cravings are not always physical- they are sometimes emotional. When someone is breaking their addictive behavior, the mind can crave the high they are used to in the same manner the body craves the substance. Exercise can offer similar sensations, which can help stave off cravings.
  • Restores the Mind/Body Connection: Addiction severs the mind-body connection needed to live a happy and healthy life. Exercise has shown to help restore good feelings, improve self-esteem, boost overall health and focus the mind and spirit to help restore the vital connection between one’s physical and emotional selves.

The Physical Benefits of Exercise During Recovery

The physical body takes a real hit when in the throes of addiction. There is not a single organ in the body that is not affected. Here are just some of the physical ailments which may occur during drug and alcohol addiction (and even later on after recovery is established):

Healing this damage takes a multi-faceted approach which includes improving nutritional intake, restoring lost vitamins and minerals through supplementation, and of course, adopting a healthy exercise routine.

While there are a lot of benefits to the body when it comes to incorporating physical activity into your daily routine, some of the main ones include:

  • Preventing heart disease
  • Controlling (or even preventing) high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Strengthening the heart
  • Strengthening the bones
  • Improving immune system responses
  • Maintaining better brain function
  • Improving circulation and blood flow
  • Improving oxygen levels
  • Aiding digestion
  • Increasing bone density
  • Improving agility
  • Improving mood

More specifically, exercise can help restore health to a body ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction by:

  • Increasing immunity: all too often the result of prolonged substance abuse is a severe decrease in overall immunity. Exercise can help build up the immune system, making the body more able to fight against disease and infection.
  • Controlling Diabetes: the pancreas is especially vulnerable to substance abuse, and if attacked long enough by alcohol and drugs may become damaged to the point where it is no longer able to function properly. This can lead to diabetes. Exercise is known to help regulate blood glucose levels and keep weight down, which can contribute to an inability to control blood sugar levels.
  • Promoting intestinal well-being: recovering drug and alcohol abusers often experience a myriad of intestinal issues caused by their substance abuse. This may include an inability to digest foods correctly, chronic diarrhea or even constipation, as well as other intestinal issues. Over time, regular exercise can help heal the gut and promote better digestion and more consistent bowel movements.
  • Regulates blood pressure: depending on the drugs that have been consumed, many addicts experience serious blood pressure irregularities. During recovery, these problems may increase, but exercise can help regulate blood pressure, leading to a healthier heart.

The Emotional Benefits of Exercise During Recovery

Exercise doesn’t just make your body strong and fit; it can also strengthen your mind and emotions.  Shown to reduce depression, regular exercise offers a good way for those recovering from an addiction a way to feel better about themselves while also raising the endorphin level in their body.

Endorphins are chemicals released by the body when undergoing even mild exercise, which helps to improve mood and stave off pain. In other words, they make you feel good. Sometimes referred to as the body’s “natural morphine,” endorphins bind to the same receptors in the brain as heroin and opiates do, which is what some call “the runner’s high.”  They can also have a sedative effect, making it easier to fall asleep at night (something many people in recovery find difficult). The good news is that endorphins are neither habit forming nor addictive.

Not just a way to boost endorphin levels in the body, regular exercise can also help participants increase their self-esteem and feel better about themselves. Having a regular exercise routine is a good way to ground oneself an, set goals and achieve success. Whether it leads to weight loss, better health or simply the ability to stick to something and achieve a new goal, exercise is a good way to feel better — both physically and emotionally.

Lower Stress Levels with Exercise

Stress can be a real trigger for anyone recovering from addiction. Exercise can combat that by offering an outlet to get rid of bad feelings and work through daily tensions before they build up. Even a little exercise can go a long way to alleviating stress in the human body. According to the stress-management specialists at the Mayo Clinic, exercise can help alleviate stress by:

  • Helping participants work off bad feelings.  Exercise is a great way to work off tension, and the repetitive movements of exercise like swimming or tennis helps those in recovery focus on their body movements rather than their feelings. This offers a way to combat triggers which may send some in recovery back to more addictive behaviors.
  • Improving Mood. The feel-good chemicals released during exercise helps improve mood and keep emotions more stable.
  • Improving Sleep. Insomnia can be difficult to deal with for someone in recovery. Unfortunately, it is also common for this demographic. Regular exercise can help regulate the body’s sleep patterns, making it easier to fall asleep – and stay asleep – at night.

Types of Exercises to Try During Recovery

Experiencing the benefits of exercise does not mean that you must hit the gym every morning for two hours, bench pressing 200 pounds, or even running for miles through the woods every day. Whether you indulge in moderate exercises like a brisk walk through the woods or gardening in the backyard, or you like something more strenuous like kickboxing or swimming laps, any type of exercise is good for both body and mind.

The human body needs physical activity. It is what gets the heart pumping, blood circulating and chemicals or hormones released at the right times. Without exercise, the body’s muscles (including the brain), begin to atrophy, causing this well-running machine begins to falter.

But, give it regular doses of physical activity and the body has a tremendous ability to heal itself. This is very important during addiction recovery.

But what types of exercises are the best? While any movement is good, here are 4 options for getting the most out of any recovery exercise routine:

Yoga Therapy

Yoga is being used more and more in the treatment and recovery setting offering the ability to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings while providing a healthy outlet for dealing with stress and triggering situations. Offering a simple and effective way to prevent relapse, yoga therapy is just one of the holistic exercises helps at Elevate Recovery Services.

According to researchers at Harvard University,  becoming involved in a  yoga therapy program is an effective way to reduce stress responses within the brain so that those in recovery are better able to handle outside stressors. This can help them maintain their sobriety long after their treatment is over.

By releasing tranquilizing chemicals into the bloodstream during certain yoga poses, the body is able to relax and focus, making the need for drugs and alcohol less.

In addition, yoga therapy has shown to help patients ground themselves, and become more self-aware, which increases their ability to cope with all sorts of circumstances and remain substance free.

Water Sports

The water can have a real calming effect. That may be why so many people in recovery gravitate towards water sports like swimming, kayaking, and canoeing. These adventure therapy style activities allow them to experience the serenity that the water offers while still providing a good outlet for strengthening the body through movement and exercise.


Hiking too offers a good opportunity to get some exercise while communing with nature. Exploring the back trails is an excellent way to absorb the natural beauty and calmness that only nature can provide, while still moving. A wonderful way to boost cardiovascular health, walking can be done at whatever pace the participant can handle, which makes it an excellent choice for just about everyone.

Blood Pumping Exercises

For those who prefer a harder exercise routine, try a more intense physical fitness program like CrossFit which offers a blood pumping form of exercise that incorporates a variety of activities including rowing, running, weightlifting and more, for a more intense workout.  Of course, this isn’t the only way to get the blood flowing. Here are a few other activities to consider:

  • Biking
  • Jogging/Running
  • Kick Boxing
  • Swimming
  • Aerobics

Group Activities: Recreational sports are a good way to get some exercise and enjoy other’s company as well. Joining a sports team can be a good way to connect with others while also boosting self-esteem. Plus, it’s just plain fun!

How Much Exercise Is Needed During Recovery?

When it comes to exercise, you can’t add too little – or too much – to your daily routine. While most health experts urge the average adult to get moving for at least 150 minutes (moderate exercise) or 75 minutes (more strenuous exercise) each week, when recovery from the effects of drug or alcohol abuse, making sure to exercise at least 30-60 minutes each day is only going to increase your ability to handle every aspect of the recovery process more effectively. Some people find that more exercise helps them focus better on their recovery while also giving their body the physical boost it needs to handle the rigors of detoxification and therapy.

Adopting a regular exercise routine is essential to good health. But more importantly, it can help anyone in recovery experience a smoother transition back into a normal routine. Offering more than just physical benefits, exercise can also offer solid emotional ones, making recovering from any addiction an easier process.

This page does not provide medical advice.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
Tim Sonnet

Medically Reviewed By

Tim Sinnott, MFT

May 25, 2019

Questions About Treatment?

Elevate Rehab offers 100% confidential substance abuse assessment and treatment placement tailored to your individual needs. Achieve long-term recovery.

Treatment Resources

Popular treatment programs