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Benefits Of Exercise During Drug & Alcohol Rehab

by Landmark Recovery

June 22, 2018
A woman running at a substance abuse facility

Addiction to drugs and alcohol can wreak havoc on the balance we normally maintain when it comes to healthy diet and exercise; there are actually many benefits of exercise that can be capitalized on during rehab. Maintaining a regular aerobic exercise routine can actually lower risk of developing an addiction or relapsing from a prior addiction. Research has shown that individuals who regularly engage in exercise are less like likely to use and abuse illicit drugs, and that exercise offers special protective behavioral and neurological effects against developing a substance use disorder.


Danish Study on the Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

An in-depth study on the positive benefits that exercise holds for recovering addicts was conducted in 2010. The pilot program was headed by Danish researchers who tracked 38 participants for six months (23 men and 15 women) on fitness progress, body image, drug cravings, self-confidence, and motivation to change their behaviors. The key questions scientists were trying to answer were:

  1. Can exercise treatment contribute to altering the behavior of substance abusers in the short and long term?
  2. Can exercise treatment alter the target group’s body image and give them self-confidence?

All participants in the study were in the 18-40 year old age range, and all had a history of drug or alcohol abuse. The recovering addicts were trained under supervision from a university educated fitness trainer for two hours three times a week for a period of 6 months, after which they could choose to continue or stop. During the exercises, trainers focused on building oxygen intake and encouraging social interaction.

The three factors that researchers were measuring during the experiment were:

  1. How exercise treatment changes physical fitness. This was determined by measuring maximal oxygen intake levels with a maximal oxygen test taken before and after the treatment period
  2. How addiction behavior is changed by regular exercise in the short term and long term. This was measured by having participants complete the European Addiction Severity Index before and after the treatment period.
  3. How exercise can influence a person’s self reported confidence and body image. These were measured by carefully constructed interviews conducted before and after the treatment period. A follow up survey was also sent out a year after completion of the test to determine lasting impact.



The completion rate for the treatment period was roughly 52%, meaning half of the participants completed the program. For substance use disorder treatment, this is a high number. Participants showed an increased oxygen intake level of 10%, demonstrating that the fitness regime created positive results for physical health. Participants also reported better quality of life and higher energy level for the duration of the program. The addicts reported a better body image, became more sensitive to physical pain, and reduced their drug intake by the end of the program. After a year, roughly one quarter of the participants who completed the program reported being completely sober, 50% reported decreased drug intake and decreased urge to take drugs, 20% reported no change, and 1 person died from drug overdose.

  • Participants increased maximal oxygen intake levels by 10%
  • Majority of participants reported
    • Higher Energy Levels
    • Better Quality of Life
    • Better Body Image
    • Reduced Drug Intake
  • 25% completely sober after a year with minimal to no cravings
  • 50% relapsed after a year but reported less drug intake and reduced cravings
  • 20% no changes at all

While the sample size of this study is relatively small, the results show that regular physical exercise can provide important support in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse. Physical exercise can instill a positive body image and generate self confidence, which will increase a recovering addict’s chance of staying sober. Likewise, social interaction plays an important role in reaping the benefits of regularly structured physical exercise. When constructing recovery plans, we should keep in mind the valuable insight from this Danish pilot study, which shows that structured, purposeful, sociable, vigorous exercise can help recovering addicts stay clean, or at least improve their chances of staying healthy.


Benefits of Exercise in Substance Abuse Treatment

A man running on a dirt trail


Providing Structure

Having structure is an important part of addiction recovery when trying to maintain a safe and healthy life. Many people who struggle with addiction often turn to substances when their lives feel unmanageable or out of their control. Creating a regular exercise routine gives a person structure to their week, and if you include fitness goals in your routine you can give yourself extra motivation to stick to that routine. Also, addiction can wreak havoc on the body. An exercise routine can help the body slowly heal from the self inflicted damage.


Keeping the Body/Mind Occupied

One of the hardest things recovering addicts have to face is boredom. When your mind becomes unoccupied, it’s easy to slip back into old modes of thinking such as, “Having a drink would make this more enjoyable”, or “I can get high because I have nothing to do right now”. For those fresh out of rehab, all that time they spent acquiring and using drugs is now freed up. Working out, whether its running, yoga, weightlifting, or playing a sport, helps take the recovering addicts mind off thoughts of using again.


Produces Healthy Neurochemicals

Much like the drugs they used to abuse, recovering addicts often find that working out can be an addictive habit for feeling good, albeit with positive instead of negative consequences. Recovering addicts are often victims of depression or reduced ability to experience pleasure, a feeling known as anhedonia. When you exercise, your body naturally releases endorphins that create a natural high. Dedicated physical exercise may hurt at first, but as the body heals it will gradually introduce your body to natural levels of endorphins.


Increases Self Image and Mood

Numerous studies on the subject have shown that exercise can help alleviate symptoms of long term depression. This is because, in addition to creating feel good neurochemicals, exercise also strengthens your body, raises your energy levels, and increases your oxygen capacity. Studies in the UK have also pointed out that those who exercise experience greater feelings of self-esteem and confidence than their counterparts who didn’t exercise. In fact, regardless of whether people are achieving their fitness goals, simply the act of being engaged in a regular exercise routine increases your confidence.


Get Better Sleep

For addicts experiencing withdrawal or who are further down the road to recovery, insomnia can be a common occurrence. The body struggles to fall back into a natural rhythm without the use of substances. Fortunately, exercise can be used as a way to get your body back into a regular routine. There’s a substantial amount of evidence that regular exercise improves not only the quantity, but also the quality of sleep we get.


Helps Combat Cravings

Urges are natural part of the recovery process that can unfortunately hinder sobriety progress by making you want to relapse. Fortunately, exercise can be a helpful tool in reducing and curbing cravings for drug and alcohol use. A study out of Vanderbilt University looked at college age drug users who were asked to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week. Participants reported 50% less cravings for using their drug of choice, and also decreased their overall drug intake.


Helps You Maintain Physical Health/Weight

Addiction is known to cause either severe weight loss or severe weight gain. For that reason, recovering addicts may find that their eating habits need to drastically change to avoid falling back into the same routines. A healthy body is linked to higher self esteem and body image, as well as higher energy levels and better immune system. Overall, there’s really no downside to exercise outside of the time commitment necessary to get into shape.


Reduce Stress

Harvard scientists have pointed out that exercise can immediately reduce levels of stress in the body by regulating levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body. These hormones are responsible for our stress response. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, regular exercise can also reduce the body’s long term response to stress in general, increasing your tolerance for stressful situations.


Improves Your Memory

Serious drug and alcohol abuse can take a toll on your mental health, not to mention your memory. According to Harvard scientists, regular exercise can help improve the manner in which the brain protects and enhances your cognitive abilities. In other words, research is showing that dedicated exercise can make your brain stronger. Scientists found a link between regular aerobic exercise and boosts in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is the area governing memory and learning. Exercise is also shown to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation in the brain.


How Much Exercise Should Recovering Addicts Get?

A man running up stairs

Physical fitness is important for everyone, not just recovering addicts. The Centers for Disease Control recommend that everyone get at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense physical activity every week. Broken down, this is roughly 30 minutes a day through a 5 day work week. It’s not necessary to break it down to an exact science, but it is helpful to establish a consistency that doesn’t leave large gaps in between workouts. This could mean ten minute breaks for three times a day, or one hour workouts every two days. The CDC also recommends engaging in strength training at least twice a week, targeting all the major muscle groups and leaving ample time for recovery.

Remember, this is all just a baseline for establishing a healthy workout routine. If your body isn’t ready to handle moderate to intense exercise, you should begin with light to moderate exercise until you feel ready to increase intensity. In the Danish study quoted earlier in this article, we saw that addicts saw impressive abstinence results from structured workouts that took up 2 hours per session and occurred three times a week. These workouts were also lead by highly educated personal fitness coaches, and were highly sociable. When putting together your workout plan, try to base it off of professional


Exercises You Can Try

There is no perfect exercise designed specifically for curbing addiction, but this also means you have plenty of options to pursue when looking to create a routine. You should pick an exercise routine that suits your schedule, is relevant to your interests, and that offers you the chance to be social.



A woman practicing yoga at her rehab facility

Yoga is a great option for recovering addicts because it involves intense mental focus while emphasizing clarity of mind. Many treatment centers incorporate elements of yoga and meditation into their treatment programs. Yoga is a great place to start your fitness journey post release from rehab because it helps you limber up the body and establish a baseline strength without posing a great risk to your body.



Enjoying the great outdoors is mankind’s most favorite past time (sorry baseball). Research shows that just being in nature can boost dopamine levels and relax you. Vitamin D, restorative effects on the brain, naturally occurring stress reducing chemicals, improved blood pressure from fresh air… the list of positives that nature has for us is never ending. So lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail!



A woman running at a substance abuse facility

Running is a great activity for recovering addicts that taps into the same single minded focus that addicts are notorious for. Instead of chasing a substance high, you could be chasing runners high, the purported euphoria that runners get while engaged in a long period of running. Running for even just 20-30 minutes a day is linked to lower stress, healthier weight, and better mental cognition. It’s also great excuse to get outside and enjoy more nature.



Moving through water is highly therapeutic and fun way to get exercise. Depending on your level of intensity, swimming is a great aerobic exercise that has been linked to reducing depression, reducing pain, and improving quality of sleep. It’s also a low impact activity for those who may not be able to engage in higher impact activities such as running and hiking.


Team Sports

Playing a competitive game that gets you moving is more than just a good workout. It’s also an excellent opportunity to build social relationships with others, which can be a crucial component to sustained recovery. Competitive team sports get you physically fit, strengthen your social ties, and teach you how to be a team player.


In Conclusion:

The benefits of exercise can be noticed in overall physical and mental health, and also plays an important part in your continued recovery. If you’re struggling with post rehab life, take the time to develop a structured fitness routine that gets you moving and that gets you socializing. You can learn more about relapse prevention strategies at the Landmark Recovery blog. Landmark Recovery is a Louisville-based inpatient alcohol rehab center incorporating leading techniques and methods for giving the highest quality treatment available to recovering addicts.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.