Exercise and physical activity play an important part in addiction recovery. Here is your guide to getting and staying sober while getting physically fit.
North District Hospital’s Erica So (left) and “Elaine”, who now shares her experiences with young drug addicts.
In an article from the South China Morning Post, a 25-year-old woman from Hong Kong vows that she was hooked on drugs since the age of 13 and that an eight week rehabilitation course focused on aerobic kick-boxing was the final treatment to make her say good-bye to drug use for good.
After six years in and out of rehabilitation centres, she says about herself “I did not want to quit drugs at first when I entered [the] rehab centre” but that the aerobic exercise programme helped build up her self-confidence and ability to succeed in long-term addiction recovery.
The woman was part of 127 participants in the programme that took place at North District Hospital in Sheung Shui and was funded by the Beat Drugs Fund in an effort to draw attention to the benefits of physical exercise in addiction recovery. A physiotherapist who led some of the programme’s kick-boxing, Erica So Yuen-ching, said that those who participated in the aerobic exercise programme were less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. In fact, where a depression index above 18 indicates someone prone to depression, the average index of participants dropped from 23.6 to 12.4. The hospital’s associate consultant in psychiatry stated that “constantly doing aerobic exercises can improve emotions and make drug rehabilitation easier”.
How to Get Sober and Stay Sober with Physical Activity
Most people are aware that physical activity is good for the body, but exercise can also immensely improve mental health when done on a regular basis. As the act of exercising stimulates the heart and lungs, it is also fuels the brain’s reward pathway and heightens mood-boosting neurochemicals.
For those looking to stay sober and achieve a successful addiction recovery, exercise or physical activity is an essential part of any addiction recovery plan, as it offers the following benefits:
1. Physical exercise provides structure.
First but not necessarily the most important, physical activity can provide structure to your daily addiction recovery routine. Whether it is a daily morning run, an afternoon yoga class or cycling with friends in the evening, scheduling in 30-60 minutes of some form of physical activity each day will not only help keep you healthy, but it will help keep you busy, and away from negative thought processes.
2. Exercise can decrease feelings of depression and anxiety.
Exercise immediately begins having positive effects on the mind by releasing ‘feel-good’ chemicals (neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids) in the brain, which leave you feeling lighter and happier very quickly, if even for the short term at first. Over several days or weeks of regular physical activity, feelings of depression and anxiety will decrease for longer periods, leaving you more able to focus on your addiction recovery.
3. Fitness increases self-esteem.
Exercise can also cause weight loss, muscle tone and an overall healthier body, which is a great confidence booster. But beyond the physical, setting fitness goals and achieving them can leave you with a sense of pride. Building confidence is an important part of addiction recovery, as without it you may not feel like you can succeed. Start with small fitness goals such as going for a 20 minute walk every day, or attending a yoga class three times a week. Once you know that you can maintain these goals, set higher ones. Continuously setting and achieving goals, not to mention the other benefits physical activity has on addiction recovery, will be an immense help on your path to success.
4. Continuous exercise may reverse damage done by substance abuse.
Drinking heavily has long been associated with damage to the white matter in the brain. The white matter is essentially the part of the brain that is responsible for sending messages from one part of the brain to the other. Studies monitoring the white matter in the brain before and after extended exercise programmes have shown that consistent physical activity might actually be able to repair some of the damage done to the white matter in the brain, increasing cognitive function and thus making addiction recovery just a little bit easier.
5. Slow and steady wins the race.
If you are new to exercise or any type of physical activity, it can often seem daunting to start a workout programme. Looking at other people in the gym who run on the treadmill full-speed for an hour, or members of your yoga class who can seemingly twist themselves into pretzels without batting an eyelash can make you feel insecure and unmotivated. But you must remember that at one point they too were at the same point you are. Find an activity that you enjoy, set small but challenging goals for yourself, and be amazed at how quickly you can progress if you put your mind to it.
Physical Activity for Addiction Treatment
As can be seen above, exercise and physical activity can have very positive effects on addiction recovery, but in most cases exercise alone is not enough to combat a severe alcohol or drug addiction. Many addicts have underlying mental health issues that also need to be addressed, such as depression and anxiety, various mood disorders and even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
While exercise has been proven to help decrease feelings of stress and anxiety, other coping skills are often needed to help keep these disorders at bay for good. And in the case of PTSD or mood disorders, it is important to treat these alongside addiction to ensure a long lasting recovery.
The Cabin Addiction Services Group uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) along with group and one-on-one therapy sessions to ensure that addicts get a well-rounded education on dealing with their addiction to ensure a long-term, successful addiction recovery at each of our inpatient or outpatient facilities.
If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction and need help, contact us today for a consultation with one of our counsellors.