Today’s guest post is written by Constance Ray. She started Recoverywell.org with the goal of creating a safe place for people to share how addiction has affected them, whether they are combating it themselves or watching someone they care about work to overcome it. The goal is to share stories of hope from survivors who know that the fight against addiction is one worth having, because no matter how it affects you, life can get better.
Doctors and fitness gurus have long touted the numerous ways exercise positively impacts our lives. Working out improves our physical health, reducing risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, but it can also improve our mental health as well. For those in recovery, this emotional wellness goes beyond just feeling good, and impacts our brain chemistry in ways that can battle addictive tendencies.
How the brain rewards you for your workout
In order to manage addiction, you must understand brain chemistry. Dopamine is a brain chemical that gives us intense feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Drugs trigger dopamine, which is why drinking and doing drugs feel good. Some drugs, such as meth and heroin, send massive rushes of dopamine that can last for a long time. The happy feelings from these drugs is a factor in addiction because users keep going back to chase that great feeling, often to their personal detriment. Repeated drug use, however, suppresses the dopamine system.
The good news is, exercise releases the same brain chemicals and reignites dopamine receptors. According to a UCLA study, those who were addicted to meth were able to increase their number of dopamine receptors through regular exercise. The study suggests that exercise be incorporated into recovery treatments. Other studies have shown similar results with users of other drugs, such as marijuana, where a healthy exercise habit took over heavy drug use. Either through brain chemical alteration or simply by replacing a bad habit with a good one, exercise is a good choice for recovering addicts.
Exercise also helps you manage stress
There are other ways in which the brain reacts positively to exercise. In a Princeton University study, researchers found that exercise reorganizes the brain. In this reorganization, the brain is better able to handle stress. It was an interesting study, as prior research indicated that neurogenesis in the brain—the process of building new brain cells—that was caused by exercise may make someone more susceptible to stress. Scientists thoughts these new brain cells would be more easily excited and thereby would make you more excitable and stressed. The Princeton researchers, however, found that exercise strengthened the mechanisms that help control new cells from getting excited as well.
Exercise has also been shown to help with depression, too. During exercise, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is released. GABA also relaxes excitable neurotransmitters which helps people feel better after a workout.
The implication of this research for those suffering from addiction is that, in addition to rewarding your brain with pleasure and contentment, exercise helps manage stress. Both of these factors are crucial in dealing with addiction withdrawal and other aspects of recovery.
Fitness builds confidence
In addition to the chemicals in our brain rewarding us for working out, fitness has also been shown to build confidence—a trait that is helpful in addiction recovery. Researchers have found in the same way that it reduces stress, exercise builds confidence and mental ability. Confidence is also built when we like the way we look after losing pounds and building muscle, and when we feel better physically, too.
How to ease into a fitness routine
So, what is the best way to reap these brain-chemical and confidence-building rewards? Start slowly, so that exercise can become a regular part of your life. Adding small periods of activity, such as 30 minutes a day of low-impact exercise, is preferable to diving in and overexerting yourself at the gym. It’s not that marathon workouts aren’t effective; it’s that they are unsustainable for most. Make sure you also vary your workouts, mixing up cardio (running, cycling, walking, etc.) with strength training (using kettlebells, resistance bands, dumbbells, etc.) and stretching.
With a small amount of daily exercise, your body will feel better, and your brain will start rewarding you for your healthy activities. Both of these are excellent tools in managing addiction.