Pain and Gain: How Exercise Builds You Back Up

Many of today’s inpatient rehab programs have adopted exercise as a recovery cornerstone. Every year, suffering individuals learn to revitalize their lives by utilizing a physical fitness program. As many studies show, a physical fitness program—when combined with holistic, personal approaches and evidence-based therapy methods—is one of the most effective recovery tools available.     

Exercise and Sobriety

Exercise and Sobriety

Addiction impacts everyone differently, so no individual’s recovery experience will be the same. Similarly, addiction treatment comes in many forms. While popular culture has depicted drug addiction treatment as a hospital-bound process, one dictated by IV drips, group counseling sessions and possible jail time, proactive approaches to exercise, adventure therapy and other forms of physical activity support a more proactive approach to recovery.

Physical activity, exercise and adventure therapy can give recovery a much-needed, lively change. Exercise provides a natural rush. For this reason, a lot of recovery techniques focus on re-balancing the brain’s “happiness-inducing” chemicals via hard work. Chemicals like dopamine—which alcohol and drug abuse can imbalance—can be maintained, or even increased, via persistent exercise.

Unsurprisingly, many alcohol rehab centers have included exercise as a go-to resource for introductory and advanced detox program participants alike. Reportedly, the act of practicing an exercise routine, committing oneself to physical activity every week and focusing on new talents can keep the mind off of substances.

Digging into the Science

Digging into the Science

In fact, several epidemiological studies have supported these claims. Reportedly, individuals engaging regular aerobic exercise are less likely to use, abuse and maintain use of illicit drugs. Until recent years, few studies explored the casual influences which control this relationship. It wasn’t clear whether working out was an effective recovery tool.

Fortunately, several preclinical studies have revealed the vital ties between substance cessation and exercise. These studies proved a decrease in chemical dependency in self-administration laboratory animal tests. They additionally revealed that exercise can produce protective effects in the mind and body—even helping an individual recover from a substance abuse disorder. This natural protection is said to reduce the following:  

  • The urge to acquire substances
  • The urge to maintain use of substances
  • Escalation of substance use
  • Relapse
  • Reinstatement of continual drug use

Moreover, these studies revealed a few neurobiological and behavioral consequences exercise is responsible for. Collectively, the studies have created convincing evidence to support a slew of exercise-based interventions. These interventions, woven into inpatient rehab programs, may hold the key to reducing compulsive substance abuse patterns—both with drug intake and in-care issues.

The Best Addiction Recovery Exercises

Addiction Recovery Exercises

Because detox treatment centers have adopted a number of exercise options for patients, drug-addicted individuals can select different activities based on their interests, physical needs, and limitations. The exercises included in a detox program, commonly, are custom-tailored to fit the individual’s recovery needs, struggles and success stories.  

Hiking and Walking

Sometimes, enjoying the Great Outdoors is all you need. A lot of alcohol rehab centers have adopted hiking-based exercises to introduce clients to new environments, instill a sense of wonder and promote overall brain function by promoting new cell growth.   Studies suggest that a simple, 15-minute walk can help stave off substance cravings. A brisk stroll, or a hike, can enhance overall brain function.    

Weight Lifting and Strength Training

While cardiovascular exercises may be more popular in drug addiction treatment programs, it isn’t rare to see a drug rehab treatment center adopt a weight lifting program to assist recovering individuals. Lifting weights provides a few recovery benefits. A lot of recovering addicts suffer from prolonged insomnia, but anaerobic exercise can promote a healthy sleep schedule.

Weight training, bodyweight exercises and similar workouts can even reboot the body’s sleep cycle. Of course, prolonged exercise is required in any prescription drug addiction program. While intermittent exercise can help, an ongoing routine is needed to sustain a higher degree of recovery.


On the other end of the exercise spectrum, yoga persists as one of today’s most effective prescription drug rehab exercise options. Limbering up, reportedly, offers numerous physical and mental health benefits. Patients wanting to build muscle mass can engage “power yoga,” which focuses on fortifying the body, strengthening muscles and promoting balance. Some alcoholism treatment programs, meanwhile, have adopted “restorative” yoga classes. These less-intense exercises aim to unpack anxiety, reduce stress and reduce the overall likelihood of relapse.


Because sports instill a sense of teamwork, achievement and long-term goal creation, they’re incredibly effective addiction treatment practices. Playing kickball, throwing a football or playing basketball can help patients bond with one another. Plus, the camaraderie created via casual team games can support long-term recovery. In playing sports, an addicted individual can form new relationships. More importantly: These relationships won’t revolve around drinking or drug use. They help recovering individuals reintegrate with society.

Other Fitness Options

Once more, addiction programs vary. Exercise opportunities vary, too, spanning across a number of conventional and unconventional options. Some treatment centers might offer more creative physical challenges for recovering individuals, such as:

  • Obstacle courses
  • Rock climbing
  • Surfing
  • Rope courses

Of course, a program’s fitness options are determined by its location. Persistent across all programs, however, is the persistence of adventure as a goal. Completing physical challenges won’t only increase the body and mind’s health—they’ll increase one’s self-confidence throughout recovery while releasing dopamine within the brain. Often, the memories created throughout these adventurous exercise therapies can remain with an individual for years.

Exercise’s Impact on Withdrawal

While exercise is primarily used to help addicted individuals recover, it’s also a viable anti-withdrawal tool. During the withdrawal period, exercise can give a suffering individual the much-needed mood boost to propel them to success. Because exercise combats anxiety and insomnia, it’s an effective cornerstone of acute and post-acute withdrawal recovery.

Some exercises, such as the Thomas Recipe, have been created to help opiate users detox at home. By incorporating exercise, the Thomas Recipe treats anxiety while reducing the symptoms of restless leg syndrome. Meanwhile, a 10-15-minute jog on a treadmill, each morning, can help a recovering individual feel more connected to themselves, overcoming substance abuse while promoting their own health.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Recovery

Where post-acute withdrawal is considered, rehabilitating individuals must face up to a year of symptoms. Typically, these symptoms include insomnia, depression, and anxiety. These symptoms, normally created by brain imbalances, can also be alleviated with continual exercise.

Dependence on alcohol, opiates or other drugs causes the brain to cease production of important neurotransmitters. Starting a new workout routine can produce and release these chemicals, putting the brain—and body—back into homeostasis. Throughout the post-acute withdrawal phase, recovering individuals will benefit from these substances being promoted within the body:


While anaerobic exercise can increase serotonin production, aerobic exercise can produce it in greater levels. Serotonin is important for the body’s relaxation and healthy sleep. Exercise delivers a stream of amino acids into the body’s muscles—except for tryptophan. These amino acids slowly make their way to the brain, serving as precursors of serotonin.


Oxygen is necessary for serotonin production. Because cardiovascular exercise promotes the production of oxygen in the brain, rehab centers have created cardio-centric workout routines. While oxygen’s build-up is slow, continuous exercise can increase an individual’s overall ability to produce, and maintain, healthy levels of oxygen.


Strenuous exercise releases endorphins—euphoria-inducing, painkilling neurochemicals. These neurochemicals help the individual feel good for hours following exercise. While low endorphin levels are associated with sluggish, sad and disinterested states, the abundance of endorphins can promote a positive mood, aid motivation and buffer one’s psychological system against post-acute withdrawal symptoms.


Dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical, is responsible for motivation, pleasure and reward-based feelings. Exercise stimulates the body’s dopamine production—much in the way drugs and alcohol do. Unlike drugs and alcohol, however, natural dopamine production doesn’t carry negative side effects.


Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, abbreviated as BDNF, helps the brain create new neurons, repair existing neurons and promote overall neuron connectivity health. Exercise releases BDNF, helping individuals “require” the brain. During this rewiring state, recovering individuals can create new neural pathways—slowly dissolving old habits.


Continuous exercise can boost the body’s norepinephrine levels. Norepinephrine, a transmitter produced in response to stress, is responsible for regulating other neurotransmitters which inhibit stress. By exercising regularly, an individual can “practice” their norepinephrine and neurotransmitter connections. This artificial “stress test” can buffer one’s stress response systems—giving the individual more power over anxiety, bad moods, and depressive thoughts.  

Exercise also fine-tunes our adrenal glands, brain, heart, lungs and other organs. When these organs are put to similar “stress tests,” the individual will be less likely to overreact to the day’s regu.

lar stressors.

Exercise and Meditation: Yin and Yang          

Exercise is commonly called “meditation in motion.” This isn’t surprising, as intense exercise can inhibit stress while promoting overall cognitive health. When paired, exercise and meditation can promote astounding mental and physical changes.

Reportedly, exercise and meditation used in conjunction—performed twice per week, for two months—can reduce depression symptoms by 40 percent. As per a study published in Translational Psychiatry, lead author and research conductor, Brandon Alderman, stated that the study suggested that, “when done together, (exercise and meditation), there is a striking improvement in depressive symptoms along with increases in synchronized brain activity.”

Aerobic exercise is more likely to complement meditation than anaerobic exercise, however, as its dopamine-building benefits pair well with the process of meditation itself. Aerobic exercise similarly reduces the many emotional difficulties people experience, changing the very way they respond to emotions.

How Much Exercise is Required?

Many recovering individuals who engage holistic drug rehabilitation programs will benefit from at least four hours of exercise per week. Four hours per week, experts believe, is found to activate the body’s genes which produce neurotrophic factors. These neurotrophic factors can increase brain cell growth, crafting new connections between neurons.  

Because many recovering individuals suffer from serotonin deficits, dopamine deficits, and neurological pathway problems, the “four-hour minimum” exercise requirement has been adopted by many programs. Excessive drug and alcohol use can cause premature aging, even increasing the individual’s risk of cancer in later life.

Fortunately, exercise can slow—or even reverse—aging and cell damage. For this reason, exercise is promoted as a preventative routine for dementia. Several studies suggest that roughly 50 percent of cancer-related deaths may be prevented by engaging a healthy lifestyle filled with exercise. While some rehabilitation programs promote day-to-day exercise as a recovery cornerstone, an hour of exercise, four times per week, is enough to experience benefits.

Harnessing Your Mind-Body Connection

The human body is incredibly complex. Exercise creates a slew of physiological chain reactions, buffering the individual’s mental state and promoting an overall sense of well-being.

While research is still being conducted on exercise’s drug recovery benefits, science still supports its benefits.

The mind-body connection is a vital one, responsible for the individual’s ability to cope with stress, circumnavigate addiction and recover from chemical imbalances. By making one’s bones denser, muscles stronger and mind sharper, a person can overcome a number of life’s obstacles. Resilience isn’t secured in a single day. It’s crafted over a lifetime.

Fortunately, recovering individuals who’ve never exercised can still benefit. Within a year, an individual can achieve astounding levels of physical prowess. Improving one’s fitness level and body composition can build self-esteem. Higher self-esteem, in turn, makes one less likely to turn to self-destructive behavior.

Different from the vicious cycle of addiction, exercise is a highly virtuous cycle which connects the mind and body.

If you or a loved one suffer from addiction, contact a holistic provider today. Holistic care providers work alongside every client, crafting custom-tailored exercise plans capable of promoting mental and physical growth. Every person’s body is different—and every addicted individual’s path to recovery is different, too. By promoting each patient’s natural strengths, holistic care providers imbue the individual with the strength, resilience and mental tools they need to ongoing health, success, and wellbeing.

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