The Role of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

addiction recovery and addiction

Drug addiction is a chronic disease that affects the brain. The changes take place on a structural level and have the potential to be long-lasting. These changes are at the root of the compulsive behaviors and relapses which are part of addiction. Using exercise to benefit addiction recovery is a strategy that is part of the program 12 Keys offers.

Exercise as Part of Restoring Health

Often, people who come to a long-term treatment program for drug addiction have neglected their physical health. The longer they have remained in the cycle of addiction, the less likely it is that they have been eating well or following a regular exercise program.

To move forward into recovery and a new, sober lifestyle, it’s important to embrace good health. This includes improving one’s physical health, as well as healing on mental and spiritual levels during treatment. Regular exercise can provide these benefits to recovering addicts, as well as give them a break from the necessary work involved in going to therapy sessions and being in treatment.

physical exercise and recovery from addiction

Benefits of Exercise to Addiction Recovery

Exercise provides physical and psychological benefits for those in recovery from drug addiction. One does not have to suddenly take up vigorous exercise to start getting these positive perks, either. Any amount of physical activity is better than no exercise at all.

A person who has not exercised in some time should make a point of starting slowly and working at their own pace, knowing that they are benefitting from any amount of exercise. Here are some of the ways exercise can be especially helpful to a person in recovery:

benefits of exercise to addiction recovery

Exercise helps to reduce stress.

Exercise is a natural stress-buster. During drug addiction treatment, there will be times when the topics being discussed will be painful, frustrating, hurtful, shameful, embarrassing, etc. A client’s go-to strategy before entering treatment may have been to get high to tune out or avoid experiencing those unpleasant feelings.

That option is no longer available during a drug addiction treatment program. Exercise to overcome addiction is a reasonable way to learn how to cope with stress and “get it out” in a safe manner, thus reducing the chance the person will turn back to the drug and relapse. Part of the treatment process is about learning coping skills for dealing with life stresses. Getting regular exercise provides an outlet for being able to cope with everyday frustrations and the crises that can happen in life.

It helps to restore regular sleep patterns.

After going through the withdrawal process, some addicts may feel on edge or even aggressive. Being physically active early in the day can help to alleviate these types of feelings of restlessness. By bedtime, it becomes easier to get the much-needed, restorative sleep the body needs. Do not exercise too close to bedtime, though, since it will likely be energizing and disrupt sleep.

Exercise is fun.

A number of people living with a drug addiction have forgotten what it’s like to play and have fun. They have lost touch with that side of themselves through their struggle with addiction. Letting go and getting some exercise, even for a short time, helps to release the playfulness that lives in all of us.

Play and laughter help to take the focus off of stress, troubles or whatever happens to be going wrong. The shared experience with the other people who are involved in the game fosters a sense of belonging. If a person in recovery has been feeling lonely or abandoned, this can be a very helpful remedy to start healing those broken emotions.

It eases symptoms of depression.

Physical activity causes the body to release natural chemicals that help to increase mood. Endorphins are the body’s “feel-good” hormones, and they tend to elevate mood during and after working out.

For people turning to drugs as a way to treat symptoms of depression or who currently struggle with their self-esteem in recovery, exercise can provide a much-needed mood boost. It is not the same type of “high” a person taking drugs would experience, but it’s a natural, more long-lasting sense of well-being.

using exercise to benefit addiction recovery

Exercise helps to build confidence.

There are a variety of physical activities available to help people get and stay fit, making learning to stay active an opportunity to enjoy new activities. Successfully trying something new is a major boost to someone’s self-confidence, especially if they are trying to rebuild after struggling with drug addiction.

It can take time for a person in recovery to think of him or herself as someone more than “just an addict.” The truth is that although that person may have an addiction, that’s not all they are, nor is it all they will ever be.

The confidence gained in learning how to perform a new skill, increasing strength and building muscle will spill over into other areas of a person’s life. It won’t take long before the initial benefits will make themselves known — better posture, less looking down, more facing forward.

It helps a person be social — with the right people.

Once clients complete their drug addiction treatment, they will want to find sober activities they can engage in where they can meet new people. If they are committed to long-term recovery, they know they can no longer spend time with former friends and associates who are still using drugs. The risk of falling back to old behavior is just too great.

Spending time enjoying physical activity gets people in recovery out of their homes and away from the awkwardness of not knowing what to say when meeting new people. While some of their new acquaintances may be fellow recovering addicts, others may not be in recovery. Focusing on doing something physical is a great way to spend time with others and get to know them in a low-stress manner.

Regular exercise is a way to combat boredom.

Large blocks of free time are not a recovering addict’s friend. A person who used drugs likely devoted a significant portion of his or her time and attention to finding and using drugs during the active stage of addiction.

One of the strategies that clients learn in a drug addiction treatment program is to keep themselves busy. If they keep their attention focused on activities, they are less likely to have time to focus on past events or what they miss about drug use.

Stress, frustration, anger, sadness, grief or boredom can trigger cravings to start using again. It’s normal for someone who is hurting or uncomfortable with their feelings to want to make them go away. For recovering addicts, the idea of using “just this once” is very dangerous. It’s the type of slip that starts the chain of events leading to a full-blown relapse.

Recovering addicts are better off having a full schedule that includes exercise because it can help them “ride out” times when they feel bored or unsettled. In this situation, addiction recovery and exercise are part of a tool kit for long-term sobriety.

Best Types of Exercise for the Recovering Addict

What types of exercise should recovering addicts get involved in? Here are some suggestions:

types of exercise for recovering addict


Walking is a form of exercise that just about anyone can do. It doesn’t require any special ability. Anyone can start at whatever level of fitness they happen to have at the moment, and all they need is a sturdy pair of shoes.

A person can go for a walk outside and enjoy the scenery wherever he or she happens to be. They can go for a nature hike, a walk on the beach, a walk in the city, explore their own neighborhood or check out homes in the suburbs. If the weather is uncooperative, go for a walk through a shopping mall — all steps are created equally.

This type of activity can be enjoyed on one’s own or with a group of people. Someone who decides that he or she enjoys hiking may want to join a club for this purpose. A few friends may decide to go for walks regularly as “their” fitness activity.

Join a health club. 

The benefit of joining a health club is that there are always other people around who are working out. Someone who is new to the idea of working out with machines or free weights may want to schedule some sessions with a personal trainer to learn how to use the equipment properly. This is also a good way to meet new people – personal trainers know club members well and would no doubt be happy to introduce a new person to other members.

Health clubs often offer many different exercise classes as well as opportunities to work out on a variety of equipment. These are opportunities to get fit, learn new things and meet other people with similar interests.


Yoga is an excellent exercise choice for recovering addicts. It is a gentle workout that strengthens muscles, and it’s non-competitive for people who like to exercise on their own.

addiction recovery and exercise

Practicing yoga regularly helps participants relieve stress and improve mood. It also has a host of other benefits such as lowering blood pressure. The poses help to improve balance and guide participants to slow down and focus on their breathing. They focus on the present, which is no small task for someone carrying around the burden of addiction. This form of exercise gives a person the chance to breathe deeply and slow down the negative thoughts that bombard them throughout the day.


Pilates is another way to keep fit during recovery. It is a good overall workout that can help develop core strength. A person starting this type of exercise program doesn’t have to be in any specific fitness level. The exercises are gentle enough for anyone to start.

Pilates teaches participants to move correctly. It is also a good way to prepare people who would like to take up other sports. Good core strength is vital for avoiding injury in other athletic pursuits.

Tai Chi.

Tai Chi Chuan is a martial art which has been in existence for centuries. It originated in China and was initially only taught to the highest-ranking people in society. The forms were designed to conceal the fact that they were lethal methods of self-defense.

This form of exercise gets participants up and moving, and it increases heart rate. It is also a mindfulness practice in that participants find it relaxing if they practice it first thing in the morning.


Swimming is an excellent all-over aerobic exercise. It is not a high-impact exercise, such as running or jogging, which can be hard on the knees, hips or ankles. The buoyancy of water will support the body, making it a good place to swim laps or participate in either a shallow or deep-water aerobics class.

Water has the unique benefit of being cleansing, too — both literally and figuratively. Since water is a very soothing medium, spending time in a pool for exercise can be of emotional and spiritual benefit.

Exercise Is a Key Part of Addiction Recovery

While it is possible to move into recovery from drug addiction without exercise, becoming physically active makes the process much easier for clients. That’s the reason we ensure our clients have the opportunity to engage in a number of activities for exercise during their stay with us at 12 Keys Rehab.

We want them to start learning how to live a sober lifestyle while they have continuous help and support. Exercise has so many positive benefits that we ensure it is part of our program from the beginning. We lay the foundation for an active lifestyle as soon as new clients come to us.

exercise to overcome addiction

Are you looking for drug addiction help for yourself or a loved one? 12 Keys Rehab can help. Call us today to learn more about our addiction treatment programs.

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