When you imagine rehab for addiction, you probably envision a secluded hospital-style community center where people meet for group therapy. But addiction recovery can also take the form of exercise. While individual and group therapy sessions are an important part of the recovery process, exercise has been proven to benefit those recovering from addiction as well.
How Substances and Exercise Affect the Brain
When the brain experiences a release of dopamine, it feels pleasure. Drugs release an exceptionally intense rush of dopamine, called a “high.” The speed and intensity of the dopamine causes the brain to seek the triggers and behaviors that result in the high. Over time, the brain adjusts to the substance, and it needs more and more amounts in order to experience a new high. The addictive substance causes the brain to produce less dopamine or to eliminate dopamine receptors, so part of recovery is restoring the dopamine balance in the brain.
Exercise is a natural way to release dopamine, and with time, exercise increases dopamine storage and restores dopamine receptors in the brain – both of which are damaged from substance abuse. Exercise results in a stable regulation of dopamine pathways, which is important in controlling addictions. Some exercises are especially helpful for those in the recovery process, including yoga, outdoor activities, and strength training.
Physically, yoga can improve balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance. It can also improve heart and lung function. More intense yoga sessions can release dopamine, but the other mental benefits are really what make yoga a great choice for someone in addiction recovery.
Practicing yoga balances, regulates, and calms the nervous system, which helps an individual handle stress more efficiently. These feelings of calmness spill over into all aspects of life. Yoga teaches students to learn to control how they react to stressful situations. This skill is important in addiction recovery because stress is a trigger, as are withdrawal symptoms.
Yoga also improves reasoning skills and memory, both of which are damaged by substance abuse. People who practice yoga experience a decrease in negative feelings. Overall mood improves during a yoga session, but those feelings trickle over into the rest of life too.
Nature provides healing for the mind and body. Addicts are disconnected from their environments and their senses are shut down. Spending time outdoors reconnects the person with the environment and their senses. Being outdoors also helps reduce stress, depression, and anxiety.
Whether it’s hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, biking, or swimming, an outdoor activity can do wonders for someone in recovery. Going for a walk outdoors may have even more benefits. Even just a 15-minute walk is enough to curb a craving and may reduce withdrawal symptoms.
Incorporating your dog into your workout can really maximize its benefits. Dogs help reduce stress, distract the mind, decrease loneliness, provide a sense of purpose, and more. All of these benefits are important in fighting addiction.
A study found that smokers who completed 60-minute strength training workouts twice a week for 12 weeks along with a smoking cessation program were twice as likely to quit smoking as those who only participated in the smoking cessation program. Also, those in the strength training group lost weight and body fat, while those who weren’t in the strength training group gained weight and body fat.
Bursts of adrenaline, which are driven in part by the dopamine system, are required in strength training. By participating in strength training, someone in recovery is reconditioning the dopamine system, an important part of the recovery process. It can also lessen cravings, which is essential in overcoming an addiction.
Addiction recovery is meant to help an individual stop using a substance and to provide him or her with the necessary skills to stay clean. Exercise routines – especially yoga, outdoor activities, and strength training – teach those skills, and thus should be a crucial component in a treatment plan. Through these exercises, a person can have a healthier body and a healthier mind.
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