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Can Exercise Help Treat Addiction?

From 12-Step Programs to Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, there’s no shortage of ways people approach treatment for addiction. But could exercise really help the healing process?

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Addiction can come in any shape and form, from shopping and sex to alcohol and nicotine. And while most people won’t make the cut for “My Strange Addiction,” treating addictions of any kind can be incredibly complex. But adding exercise into the mix might be one way to strengthen the effects of treatment, research suggests.

Endorphin Distortion — Why It Matters

Photo by Marissa Angell

When an individual is trying to recover from addiction, the body and mind miss whatever was producing endorphins in the brain, responsible for that “high” feeling. Add in everyday stress, which can heighten cravings, and the recovery process can be a knockdown, drag-out fight [1].

But where do the push-ups, sprints, and squats come in? It can be common for an individual to become depressed during withdrawal, so behavioral treatments can help an addict foster healthy, drug-free living, both physically and emotionally. And since exercise also causes the release of endorphins (which can act as that natural high after an especially good sweat session) along with endocannabinoids (a marijuana-like substance which can enhance that natural high), it’s possible working out can help an individual cope with the recovery process.

Studies also show exercise can reduce stress, because galanin (a chemical found in the brain during exercise) seems to diminish certain stress-related cravings [2] [3]. Other research has found that smokers report fewer withdrawal symptoms and less intense cravings after a trip to the gym [4]. Stick with exercise long-term, and it might even diminish drug-seeking behaviors (along with that midsection) [5].

Flying High — The Answer/Debate

To take a closer look at the effects of exercise on drug addiction, scientists turned their usual furry subjects into real-life gym rats. Injected with drugs like nicotine, morphine, alcohol, and amphetamines (don’t worry, Ratatouille doesn’t get all these drugs at the same time), the group of rats put in a cage with an exercise wheel tapped the drug dispensing lever far less often than their non-exercising counterparts [5] [6].

One possible conclusion: The rat race became an alternative to the drugs, perhaps making them slightly less susceptible to becoming addicted [7] [5] [6]. Another possibility: When exercise endorphins start to kick in, working out may help with treatment by replacing one feel-good activity with another [5].

Still, it may just be that exercise serves only as a distraction: When focusing on the next set, it’s possible an addict has no time to think about the next fix. And while exercise alleviates some of the symptoms of withdrawal, it may not improve long-term abstinence [8]. Keep in mind, too, that for some, exercise can become an addiction all its own (although the chances of this becoming a problem are pretty slim) [9].

While exercise by itself is no cure for addiction, it can be an additional tool to help build (or rebuild) a healthy life.

  • It may not be a cure, but aerobic activity could help strengthen the effects of treatment for addiction.
  • During exercise, endorphins and other naturally released substances can create a safe and natural high.
  • Regular exercise can, in some cases, reduce stress along with stress-induced cravings.
  • For some, exercise might just serve as a distraction, with no long-term effects on abstinence.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts John Sharp and Ellen Langer. 

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Works Cited +

  1. Modeling stress and drug craving in the laboratory: implications for addiction treatment development Sinha, R. Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, USA. Addiction Biology, 2009 Jan;14(1):84-98. Epub 2008 Oct 20.
  2. Galanin and addiction. Picciotto, M.R.  Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT,USA. EXS, 2010;102:195-208.
  3. Voluntary exercise and clomipramine treatment elevate prepro-galanin mRNA levels in the locus coeruleus in rats.  Holmes, P.V., Yoo, H.S., Dishman, R.K. Neuroscience and Behavior Program, Psychology Department, The University of Georgia, Athens, GA, USA. Neuroscience Letters, 2006 Nov 6;408(1):1-4. Epub 2006 Sep 22.
  4. The acute effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, affect and smoking behaviour: a systematic review. Taylor, A.H., Ussher, M.H., Faulkner, G. Sport and Health Sciences, University of Exeter, UK. Addiction, 2007 Apr;102(4):534-43.
  5. May Exercise Prevent Addiction  Fontes-Ribeiro, C.A., Marques, E., Pereira, F.C., et al. Institute of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, Biomedical Institute for Research on Light and Image Faculty of Medicine; Association for Biomedical Research and Innovation on Light and Image Coimbra, Portugal. Current Neuropharmacology, 2011 Mar;9(1):45-8.
  6. Aerobic exercise decreases the positive-reinforcing effects of cocaine. Smith, M.A., Schmidt, K.T., Iordanou, J.C. et al. Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Davidson College, Davidson, NC, USA. Drug and Alcohol Dependence,  2008 Nov 1;98(1-2):129-35. Epub 2008 Jun 27.
  7. Persistent exercise attenuates nicotine- but not clonidine-induced antinociception in female rats.  Mathes, W.F., Kanarek, R.B. Department of Psychology, Tufts University, Medford, MA , USA. Pharmacology  Biochemistry and Behavior. 2006 Dec;85(4):762-8. Epub 2007 Jan 2.
  8. Stimulant reduction intervention using dosed exercise (STRIDE) - CTN 0037: study protocol for a randomized controlled trial.  Trivedi, M.H., Greer, T.L., Grannemann, B.D., et al. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Dallas, Texas, USA. Trials, 2011 Sep 19;12:206.
  9. Symptoms of exercise dependence and physical activity in students. MacLaren, V.V., Best, L.A. University of New Brunswick. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2007 Dec;105(3 Pt 2):1257-64.