Exercise Therapy

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exercise-therapyAlternative treatment programs for addiction encompass a wide range of therapies and treatments intended to provide for demands which may not be met with established techniques. Many patients find treatment success by incorporating exercise therapy into their overall addiction treatment.

Research on exercise therapy and addiction is fairly new, but already shows promising treatment outcomes. Being an intrinsically rewarding activity, providing a safe alternative to drug use, exercise can act as an effective relapse prevention strategy.

How Exercise is Used in Addiction Recovery?

Exercise can be utilized as a holistic treatment towards addiction recovery right from the onset of withdrawal symptoms. Easing withdrawal symptoms can help prevent the occurrence of relapse while a patient is trying to detox. Exercise has been shown to help alleviate both feelings of anxiety and negative mood caused with withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.

During withdrawal, a decrease in the brain’s dopamine and reward pathway activation leads to negative affect, an inability to feel pleasure, and increased cravings. Researchers hypothesize that exercise is able to ease withdrawal symptoms by increasing dopamine activity in the brain.

After the initial detoxification process, exercise therapy can aid in a patient’s ongoing abstinence by continuing to give them the chance to experience a positive mood without having to turn to drugs or alcohol. Physical activity activates many of the same rewards pathways in the brain which are activated by drug use, offering a safer and more easily controlled alternative for feeling pleasure.

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What are the Benefits of Exercise Therapy?woman exercising

On top of encouraging the development of a positive mood, exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression in the general population and in patients struggling with substance abuse. Because depression increases the risk for relapse, exercise can play an important role in helping patients remains abstinent and stick to their treatment programs.

Another unique benefit of exercise therapy for addiction recovery, when compared to both established and other alternative treatments, is its effectiveness in reducing sleep disturbances. An inability to get to sleep or stay asleep can lead many people to relapse by turning to drugs or alcohol.

How does Exercise Help with Relapse Prevention?

Relapse is also commonly caused by low feelings of self-efficacy in response to stress. Exercise can provide patients with a powerful way to feel more in control of their own physical and mental strength. Increased feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem are preventative against drug and alcohol relapse.

All of the benefits of exercise therapy discussed above, including improved mood, decrease in depressive symptoms, improved sleep, and improved self-image, can combine to drastically reduce cravings. Without having to deal with intrusive cravings, patients can spend more mental energy focusing on their treatment programs and on building a life oriented towards abstinence.

Exercise therapy for addiction recovery, because it can be modified to suit the needs of just about any patient group, is believed by researchers to be suitable for widely ranging populations. Regardless of age, sex, race, or participation in outpatient or inpatient rehab treatment programs, exercise therapy as a compliment to traditional therapies for drug addiction can enhance treatment outcomes.

It is important that those struggling with substance abuse take part in treatment programs which can meet their unique needs. Exercise therapy, which is tailored to a patient’s fitness levels goals, can play an important role in rounding out their treatment. Though research is still ongoing, the data available so far points to exercise as a beneficial adjunct therapy that is safe and well-tolerated in patients seeking treatment for addiction.


  1. Linke, S. E., & Ussher, M. (2015, January). Exercise-based treatments for substance use disorders: evidence, theory, and practicality. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4831948/
  2. Flemmen, G., Unhjem, R., & Wang, E. (2014). High-Intensity Interval Training in Patients with Substance Use Disorder. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3958650/
  3. Brown, R. A., Abrantes, A. M., Read, J. P., Marcus, B. H., Jakicic, J., Strong, D. R., . . . Gordon, A. A. (2010, June 01). A Pilot Study of Aerobic Exercise as an Adjunctive Treatment for Drug Dependence. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2889694/
  4. Lynch, W. J., Peterson, A. B., Sanchez, V., Abel, J., & Smith, M. A. (2013, September). Exercise as a Novel Treatment for Drug Addiction: A Neurobiological and Stage-Dependent Hypothesis. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3788047/
  5. Wang, D., Wang, Y., Wang, Y., Li, R., & Zhou, C. (2014). Impact of Physical Exercise on Substance Use Disorders: A Meta-Analysis. Retrieved August 30, 2016, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4199732/

Last updated on April 6th, 2017 at 04:14 pm

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