The power of regular exercise to help curb addiction cravings is often underestimated. When paired with other types of treatment and integrated into a routine, exercise can help prevent relapse.
According to Dr. Austin Slade, a clinical psychologist for the substance use outpatient treatment program at Sharp McDonald Center, exercise can support sobriety by creating a reliable routine, filling spare time, managing mental health and inspiring higher self-esteem.
Exercise can result in increased energy, better sleep and improved circulation.
“As the body gains these benefits, it results in a decreased desire for substance use, because the body is already feeling good and will not crave intoxicants to achieve similar effects,” says Dr. Slade.
Exercise can improve self-image, mood and sharpen mental acuity.
“Improved self-image and sharper mental activity will reduce mood fluctuations and, in turn, reduce cravings for substances,” says Dr. Slade. “Exercising can also result in forming a healthy social network that can hold you accountable and improve connections to something other than substances.”
Exercise can be used as a distraction or healthier craving.
Many times, substance or alcohol use becomes habitual and those choosing to stop this habit struggle with boredom or loss of ritual. Exercise is a powerful way to replace that ritual and delay use of intoxicants.
“Attempting to reduce substance use by delaying and replacing that temptation with a healthy exercise routine is a great place to start and may lead to a quicker reduction in substance use than expected,” says Dr. Slade.
Exercise can aid in reduced depression and improve mental health.
“One of the biggest myths we tell ourselves is, ‘I have to feel better before I start exercising’ when, in fact, starting an exercise routine will help make you feel better mentally and physically,” says Dr. Slade.
In mental health, this is called behavioral activation.
“Getting up and starting to move significantly helps you feel better, as opposed to sitting and being stuck in unhealthy thinking,” says Dr. Slade. “We use the saying ‘move a muscle, change a thought.’”
Exercises to support recovery
The best exercise to support long-term substance use recovery is any exercise routine that is sustainable, Dr. Slade says. If you are beginning a new exercise program, start slowly to avoid burnout and promote consistency.
“Finding an exercise routine that you can engage in regularly and enjoy for the long term will be the most beneficial,” says Dr. Slade. “It’s also beneficial to find an exercise routine that can increase your social circle, as many times in substance recovery, people have to let go of some friendships that encourage substance use.”
As with all habits, balance is key.
When introducing exercise as a way to curb cravings, it’s important to be aware of addiction replacement. While replacing addiction of a substance with exercise may seem harmless, if you begin to feel consumed with exercise, lose sleep, or neglect relationships, work and self-care, you may need to seek additional support.
Don’t live with addiction — find the right program for you to help break the cycle of chemical dependency and begin a journey to recovery, alongside medical experts. Learn about the different programs available at Sharp McDonald Center.