Benefits of Exercise in the Battle Against Drug Addiction

For anyone battling drug addiction, the story of Walter Barrera is one that is inspirational. Barrera had developed an addiction to crystal meth and cocaine, was homeless and had turned to crime to pay for his drug habit. However, a run in June 2010 was to change his life.

While attending a six month inpatient rehabilitation program in Washington, he listened to a talk given by a representative from the organization, Back On My Feet;  they likened managing to build up from running a block to a marathon to your ability to turn your life around – both might seem unmanageable,  but can be achieved step by step.


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While Barrera could only initially run 200 yards without needing to stop, after the first month he had increased this to a mile and in no time was managing ten. Running empowered him and besides losing weight, his mood improved and he was positive about his future.  Barrera now has his own apartment and works in a store selling running equipment; he is currently working towards his greatest achievement yet – a 100 mile run in Colorado’s mountains.

Exercise within addiction therapy

While some would say that Barrera has not truly overcome his addiction and has simply switched one addiction for another, exercise is certainly a healthier pursuit. The worry might be that extreme activity such as this is more likely to lead to injury and then what might someone turn to next – a relapse to drug taking or development of another unhelpful habit perhaps – but drug treatment centers across the United States have recognized the potential of physical activity to recovering addicts. As such, addiction facilities in Ohio to California are incorporating exercise into their recovery programs and encouraging addicts to continue with this once their time at the center is complete. So what is it about exercise that makes it so beneficial for those battling to leave drugs behind them?

Balancing mood

What makes illegal drugs so powerful is their impact upon the chemical signaling that occurs within the brain. For instance, heroin increases levels of dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters that allows brain cells to communicate with each other and its release induces pleasurable feelings; additionally heroin has a similar structure to endorphins and binds to their receptors leading to feelings of euphoria. Another neurotransmitter is serotonin, which also lifts mood, and LSD and ecstasy both attach to serotonin receptors mimicking its action.

These changes within the brain encourage those of us who take drugs to seek out more, which then can lead to dependency and addiction. Consequently, removing drugs during the rehab process can create significant shifts in mood. However, taking part in exercise can naturally boost levels of all three chemicals within the brain, helping to go some of the way towards recreating the intense positive feelings addicts had become accustomed to.

Evidence suggests that when physical activity is outdoors, this can induce greater feelings of positivity when compared to exercise that occurs inside; just five minutes of activity can be all that it takes for the good feelings to appear.  While greater research is needed to increase our understanding as to why this might be, more natural environments are believed to induce feelings of relaxation, with the colors blue and green already known to be calming. As around 80% of Americans now live in urban areas, city parks and gardens can provide opportunities for outdoor activity amongst pleasant surroundings for those who do not have easy access to the countryside.

Additional benefits

However, it is not merely the positive impact on mood that exercise can bring that is of benefit to recovering drug users. Managing to meet targets through physical activity, whether that’s running your first 5K, cycling up a hill that has previously been too challenging or achieving sporting success, it can boost your self-esteem, which is frequently low amongst recovering addicts and can act as a barrier to successful recovery.

Knowing what they can achieve through exercise can provide someone with the determination that they can overcome the hold that drugs has had over them, increasing their chance of kicking their habit for good. The focus required by exercise also means that it’s easy to turn to as a means of distraction when cravings rear their head, but equally a life without drugs can at times feel empty after they have been a dominant feature for so long. Sporting activities can therefore be a positive way to fill the vacancy left after drugs are no longer there.


This post was written by a guest author and edited by Hive Health Media Staff. If you would like to submit health or fitness news, click here.

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