Man on bicycle ride

Addiction is a chronic brain disease with a relapse rate between 40% and 60%. The brain mechanisms behind addiction – which involve the hijacking of the brain’s reward system – are indiscriminate when it comes to the stimulus.

This is a fancy way of saying that a person can become addicted to anything. The brain treats the dopamine rush from a first kiss or winning the lottery as equal to the dopamine rush caused by narcotics and other substances.

The ‘blindness’ of the limbic system (the official name for the brain’s reward center) is one of the reasons why relapse is always a real possibility that people living in recovery need to be prepared to deal with.

This article – though not medical advice – will address the potential of regular aerobic exercise for helping recovering addicts stay sober and embrace life in recovery. Please note – you must discuss strategies for staying sober with a mental healthcare professional.

Engage in Activities that Promote Brain Health

Addiction hijacks pre-existing brain circuitry necessary for learning, motivation, and memory. By engaging the brain areas responsible for these factors, we can improve our defenses against relapse.

Get Enough Exercise

Countless studies show how regular exercise improves your brain health. For people recovering from substance use disorders, there are both direct and indirect benefits to keeping a regular aerobic exercise routine.

But, how much is enough? The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic exercise for the average adult.

What sorts of exercises are aerobic?

Aerobic exercises push a person’s heart rate into the aerobic respiration zone, which is defined as between 60% to 80% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). Examples of aerobic exercise include:

  • Biking
  • Powerwalking
  • Rollerblading
  • Running
  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Using an elliptical machine or treadmill

Direct Benefits of Aerobic Exercise on Keeping a Healthy Brain

There are three direct ways a regular aerobic exercise routine can help improve the brain health of a recovering addict.

Improves Brain Circulation

A healthy, well-functioning brain accounts for 20% of our entire body’s resting energy usage. When you consider the brain itself weighs about three pounds, you’ll quickly discover that the brain’s metabolic demand is exceptionally high.

Regular aerobic exercise helps optimize your brain’s energy usage by delivering more essential nutrients to your brain and stimulating the production of essential chemical compounds in the brain, including neurotransmitters.

Stimulates Neurogenesis and Synaptogenesis

One of the chemical compounds made more abundant through exercise is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This chemical compound is essential for the growth and maintenance of healthy brain cells.

When new brain cells grow, it is called neurogenesis. Exercise helps to stimulate the growth of new neurons as well as the essential brain cells that support them – known as glial cells.

When existing brain cells make new connections with other neurons, it is called synaptogenesis. This process – which is stimulated by an increase in BDNF – can help increase and strengthen the areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, and motivation.

This is important for recovering addicts because addiction changes brain structures physically and alters brain chemistry. Regular aerobic exercise can help a person heal from those adverse changes in recovery.

Reduces Your Brain’s Reaction to Stress

Contrary to popular belief, exercise doesn’t decrease the presence of stress hormones. However, it does reduce the number of stress hormone receptors in essential areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus. This can indirectly cause a reduction of stress hormones in the brain.

Additionally, regular aerobic exercise can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, which can both trigger relapse in recovering addicts. Interestingly, exercise produces natural opiates – known as endorphins – that, when present, can reduce the severity and intensity of cravings.

Exercise Should Be a Major Part of the Recovery Lifestyle

As we have established, exercise is good for brain health for many reasons. However, there are additional benefits for those people recovering from substance use disorders. Exercise should be considered an essential supplemental activity to clinically proven treatments – like medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorders.


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