How Does Exercise Support You in Addiction Recovery?

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Many experts assert that exercise can be a valuable part of your healing journey from addiction. While physical fitness cannot be the sole treatment for substance use disorder, when it’s combined with behavioral therapies and medication-assisted treatment, exercise can become a powerful recovery tool.

Exercise Builds Your Mind-Body Connection

When you struggle with addiction, your brain becomes rewired to constantly crave “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. With long-term substance abuse, you stop naturally producing those chemicals, and the day-to-day activities that used to give you a sense of happiness may lose their appeal. Quitting substances is a difficult process, but recovery can be achieved with the right support and treatment.

Once sober, you will need to find other ways to experience natural releases of endorphins. One healthy outlet is physical activity. Not only does regular exercise release pleasurable chemicals in the brain, but it can also help improve mood regulation and reduce anxiety and depression. With all this in mind, it makes sense that drug misuse and physical activity affect similar parts of your brain. And it’s also why experts see fitness as a healthy stand-in for addictive substances.

Moreover, in early recovery, your body is still healing from the damage caused by addiction. Exercise can help you feel stronger, and more energized, and improve your sleep routine. Feeling good physically can positively impact your mental health and vice versa. It’s when one of these is neglected that the mind-body connection becomes off balance and wreaks havoc on our lives. By making exercise a part of your daily routine in recovery, you can watch the benefits unfold.

Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Staying in shape looks different for everyone. When some people hear the word “exercise”, they might think of someone lifting heavy dumbbells or sprinting on the treadmill at the highest setting. But the great part about exercise is that you can reap the benefits of simply walking for 30 minutes or incorporating yoga into your daily routine. Start out small and find what works best for you!

Here’s how exercise can benefit everyone, especially those in recovery:

1. Reduces Drug Cravings

When you’re in early recovery, you might experience intense urges to use substances, despite wanting to stay sober. Drug cravings can be caused by a trigger and happen frequently during post-acute withdrawal. Exercise, whether it’s going for a run, cycling, or practicing yoga, can distract your mind from cravings and refocus your attention on something positive.

2. Minimizes Stress

Recovering from addiction is incredibly stressful. Oftentimes, people self-medicate with substances to escape from stress or anxiety. So, when drugs and alcohol are removed from the picture, you need to be prepared to deal with stress using healthy coping mechanisms. According to Harvard Health, exercise reduces levels of your body’s stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, and boosts endorphin levels. Many runners or heavy lifters may experience something known as a “runner’s high” which is responsible for those feelings of optimism that make you want to push through your workout. Some people who are depressed or anxious may not have the desire to work out. But even a 10-minute walk is a great place to start as the natural painkillers that are released through regular movement can slowly build up over time.

3. Improves Overall Mood

In early recovery, you’ll often have rapid mood swings and low motivation levels. Working out burns calories and raises self-confidence levels. It inspires you to keep engaging in healthy habits. In one study, after exercising, participants reported having a better mood with decreases in tension and anger. Find what type of physical activity interests you – whether that’s weightlifting, playing a sport with friends, cardio classes, or gardening. Do a combination of your favorite exercises and switch it up each week so it’s something you can look forward to.

4. Higher Quality Sleep

Exercise increases the amount of time you spend in deep sleep, the most physically restorative sleep phase. In addition to improving the quality of your sleep, the duration of your sleep will likely last longer. When you are using energy to work out, you’ll naturally feel more ready for bed at the end of a long day. As mentioned before, exercise can also lower stress, which is a common reason many people have trouble falling asleep at night. Some evidence has even revealed that aerobic exercise can help alleviate symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disorders.

5. Provides Structure

Most recovering individuals have a lot of spare time on their hands. To avoid falling back into poor habits, it’s important to have a structured routine. Working out for an hour a day several times a week can give you something to plan your days around.

How Can You Get Started at Home?

No gym? No problem! If a gym membership is too expensive or you don’t have time to make it to the gym during the week, you can work out right at home. Put on some athletic clothes and get ready to get your sweat on. Here is one at-home workout to get you started

35-Minute No Equipment Workout

While you may want to get right into your workout, warming up is key to preventing injuries and helping you have a more effective workout. So, don’t skip the warm-up. Your body will thank you later.

Warm-Up (5 Minutes)

To get the blood flowing and your body pumped up for the workout ahead, complete each exercise for 30 seconds, twice.

  • Jumping jacks
  • Squats
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Mountain climbers

 Upper Body (10 Minutes)

Complete each exercise for 45 seconds, followed by a 15-second rest.

  • Push-ups
  • Mountain climbers
  • Shoulder taps
  • Plank walk
  • Bicep dip
  • Superman
  • Arm circles
  • Reverse plank leg lift
  • Bicep curl, using a gallon of milk or juice (45 seconds for each arm)

Lower Body (10 Minutes)

Complete each exercise for 45 seconds, followed by a 15-second rest.

  • Reverse lunges with knee lifts (45 seconds for each leg)
  • Side lunges (45 seconds for each leg)
  • Front kicks (45 seconds for each leg)
  • Squats
  • Plié squat calf raises
  • Glute bridge dips
  • Wall sit

 Abs (7 Minutes)

Complete each exercise for 45 seconds, followed by a 15-second rest.

  • Leg flutter kicks
  • Leg scissors
  • Legs in and out
  • V-sit crunch
  • Leg lifts
  • Bicycle crunches
  • Reverse crunch

Bonus Exercise:

Want a real challenge? Try burpees. Celebrity fitness trainer and wellness expert, Leandro Carvalho says they’re his favorite bodyweight exercise. “If you live in an apartment, you may have neighbors downstairs gives you a reason to do the burpees very quietly. This forces you to be controlled in your movements to not make noise or disturb your neighbors. The discipline required to control your movements and land softly on the ground helps you activate more muscle fibers, movement awareness, concentration, and therefore more benefits and results,” says Carvalho. So, use your neighbors as your motivation to master this challenging yet rewarding exercise.

 Cool Down (3 Minutes)

It’s tempting to skip the cool-down after a hard workout, but if you don’t want to risk feeling dizzy, experiencing muscle cramping, or being extremely sore the next day, you’ll want to take a few minutes to stretch your muscles and get your heart rate back to normal. Especially for those in recovery who are new to exercise, it’s important to do the cool-down.

  • Light walking (60 seconds)
  • Standing forward bend (20 seconds)
  • Quad stretch (20 seconds each leg)
  • Bent knee cross-body stretch (20 seconds each leg)
  • Child’s pose (20 seconds)

How to Build an At-Home Gym

If bodyweight workouts aren’t enough for you, then consider building your own home gym to start exercising in recovery. You don’t have to spend thousands on a Peleton bike or Bowflex equipment to get a good at-home workout. You can build a great at-home gym with just a few items. Fitness trainer Leandro Carvalho recommends the following:

Resistance Bands. The different colors indicate the levels of resistance. Yellow bands can be used for small muscles like shoulders, biceps, and triceps. Green and red bands can be used to work the chest, back, legs, and butt.

Dumbbells. Five to eight-pound weights are effective for toning the shoulders and arms. Depending on your strength, twelve to twenty-pound weights can be used to target the chest, back, legs, and butt.

Doorway Pull-Up Bar. This can be used to strengthen the arms, shoulders, and back.

Yoga Mat. A sweat-proof mat can be used to facilitate yoga poses or other floor exercises.

Ankle Weights. These weights help tone the butt. Beginners can use 2.5 pound-weights, those who are intermediate can use 5-pound weights, and those who are advanced can use two 5-pound weights on one leg, and then switch both to the other leg.

Stability Ball. Pick a size 35” or 45 depending on your height. A stability ball can strengthen your core stability and balance.

Free Online Workout Videos

Live Workouts with Celebrity Trainer Leandro Carvalho: Easy-to-follow cardio exercises and weight-training with nothing but bodyweight and common household items.

Nike Training App: High-intensity workouts designed by Nike trainers.

Downward Dog: Yoga-focused app that allows you to tailor your classes to your skill level and preference, allowing you to select the workout length, focus, and even music.  

Corepower Yoga: 30- and 60-minute yoga classes focused on strength.

YMCA On-Demand: A variety of on-demand classes, including classes tailored for kids and active older adults.


If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Mountainside can help.
Click here or call (888) 833-4676 to speak with one of our addiction treatment experts.