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 .
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  . Other research has found that smokers report fewer withdrawal symptoms and less intense cravings after a trip to the gym . Stick with exercise long-term, and it might even diminish drug-seeking behaviors (along with that midsection) .
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  .
One possible conclusion: The rat race became an alternative to the drugs, perhaps making them slightly less susceptible to becoming addicted   . Another possibility: When exercise endorphins start to kick in, working out may help with treatment by replacing one feel-good activity with another .
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 . 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) .
While exercise by itself is no cure for addiction, it can be an additional tool to help build (or rebuild) a healthy life.
This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts John Sharp and Ellen Langer.