Fitness has received a great deal of attention for its role in addiction recovery. As treatment centers continue along the trend of incorporating exercise into their recovery programs, scientists are asking whether exercise is actually effective in helping people kick an addiction.

The answer from the research community has been a resounding yes. A study published in Front Psychiatry found aerobic exercise effective for reducing substance use in addiction and protecting against relapse in recovery. A study in Behavior Modification offers promising evidence that exercise can help alcoholics reduce their drinking and improve abstinence efforts.

Why is exercise such an effective therapy for recovering addicts? Exercise improves mood and relieves stress and anxiety, making it easier for addicts to work through cravings and irritability. It improves the quantity and quality of sleep, keeping people well-rested so their mind is strong in the face of temptation. Regular exercise also provides structure to each day, which is especially helpful for those recovering at treatment centers or while without work.

Exercise isn’t just a distraction from cravings. Part of the reason that exercise works so well in addiction treatment is that it functions as a replacement for drugs and alcohol. Like abused substances, exercise engages the brain’s reward pathway to produce feelings of euphoria and well-being in participants. And like substance use, exercise is a system of positive reinforcement, wherein one’s actions directly produce the desired response. Even more incredible? Exercise can repair neural pathways that regulate motivation and self-control, which drug addiction disrupts.

When it comes to addiction recovery, any exercise is better than none. Getting active not only helps people cope with cravings and withdrawal, but it also aids the body in healing from the ravages of addiction. However, there are some forms of exercise that are especially beneficial during recovery.

Exercise that incorporates mindfulness is a powerful tool for learning how to move past cravings, negative thoughts, and anxiety. Pilates teaches control over both mind and body; by learning how to move past doubts and move deep into an exercise, addicts build a strength of mind that can aid in weak moments during recovery. Now that Pilates is a fitness mainstay, it’s easy to find opportunities to learn. Take a Pilates class at a studio, or even do some personal Pilates training.

Getting into nature is another way to boost the mental health benefits of exercise. Time outside comes with many of the same mood-boosting and stress-busting benefits of physical activity, so being active outdoors produces a powerful double-dose of positive feelings. Try hiking for a mind-clearing exercise session that’s accessible for nearly any fitness level. Pennsylvania is lush with beautiful natural areas, including nature retreats for people in addiction recovery. Even for those who can’t commit to an extended stay, it’s easy to make hiking part of any sobriety strategy with state parks like Kings Gap and Pine Grove Furnace.

Regardless of the form fitness takes, the important thing is consistency. While occasional exercise will still improve moods, its reach is limited. When physical activity becomes a part of everyday life, it imparts skills that range from emotional control to self-motivation. Setting and achieving fitness goals is also a great way to build confidence and self-esteem during addiction recovery, a time that many question their goals and purpose.

When creating fitness goals, addicts should set themselves up for success by choosing targets that are challenging but achievable. Don’t expect to run a 5K with a body weakened from substance abuse. Instead, start with walking and aim for incrementally harder times or distances. The key to committing to an exercise habit is sticking to a schedule, tracking progress, and sharing goals with supportive individuals.

With the evidence supporting exercise’s role in addiction recovery, there’s no reason not to include it in a treatment regimen or recovery action plan. While it’s not a cure-all, staying active strengthens mental and physical health in the face of recovery’s many challenges.

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