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The Benefits of Exercise in Addiction Recovery

By December 28, 2018 June 15th, 2023 No Comments
woman running upstairs

During the winter months, it can be particularly difficult to get regular exercise. However, for people in recovery, it can really be worth the effort. There are a number of benefits to regular exercise which can be very supportive to recovery, which are discussed here.

Managing Cravings

Exercise helps to manage physical and mental cravings by using energy in a positive way. Being physically active provides daily structure and limits the amount of time spent unoccupied, when cravings are most likely to emerge. It also improves mental health, sleep and energy levels, making you more resistant to cravings when they do emerge. A lack of physical activity can result in energy manifesting itself as anxiety or agitation. Constructively using this energy reduces these symptoms. Exercise can also help to reduce withdrawal symptoms in the same way.

The Brain’s Reward Centre

Exercise elicits surges of endorphins and dopamine in the brain. This improves mood in a natural, positive way. Mood can often be unstable or change rapidly during recovery, particularly in the early stages. Exercise can help to manage this. It also helps to reduce symptoms of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, which may co-occur alongside addictions. The positive effects on neurochemistry that exercise can have in fact substitute for the brain’s reaction to addictive substances by creating surges in the brain’s reward centre. This is a reliable reaction that is entirely in your control, providing you with a sense of command over your mental state.

Concurrent Disorders

Regular physical activity can help to manage the symptoms of concurrent mental health disorders that may co-occur alongside addictions. Due to the positive endorphin effect of exercise, it improves mood and reduces anxiety. It also improves sleep and energy levels, making you less vulnerable to symptoms of disorders and better able to deal with challenges that might otherwise cause anxiety or depression.

Energy Levels

Exercise improves our circulation, increasing levels of oxygen in the body. This gives us more energy and leaves us better equipped to deal with the challenges and difficulties of recovery. Better levels of energy also help to improve mood and allow us to keep active and occupied in positive ways, which can be very helpful in recovery.

Cognitive Function

Exercise improves cognitive function. This means that consistent exercise will improve problem-solving skills and focus, making it easier to cope with recovery challenges and other difficulties. Improved focus will also make you more resistant to invasive thoughts or temptations to use.

Exercise has this positive effect for a number of reasons. It helps to improve sleep, mood and heartrate and reduces symptoms associated with concurrent mental health disorders. It also helps to rebuild neural pathways that have been damaged by substance use. In this way, exercise is one of the most effective ways to repair the damage caused by addictive behaviour.

Stress Reduction

Exercise helps to reduce stress by improving mood and using energy in a positive, active way. In the early stages of recovery, people are often left with large amounts of time to fill that they once spent using or obtaining substances. This contributes to stress and negative thought patterns. As well as helping to fill this time, exercise effectively uses mental and physical energy.

As exercise also helps to improve cognitive function, it will leave you in a better position to proactively engage with any problems you face. Rather than focusing solely on the problem and allowing stress to build, exercise helps you to see solutions. Improved mood also means that you will be in a better state of mind to handle stressful situations.

Improves Sleep

The removal of substances that the body has come to depend upon is very disruptive to bodily function. One aspect of this is the disruption to our circadian rhythms, which dictate our sleeping patterns. Many addicted people also come to rely on substances to help them sleep and struggle to achieve sustained, quality sleep without them once they are in recovery. Exercise helps to improve our circadian rhythms, regulating body temperature and using physical energy in a healthy and productive way. This helps the body to rest.

Improved sleep has a wide range of positive effects on mental and physical health. It improves mood, energy, cognitive function and physical health. These positive effects mean you will be significantly better able to deal with recovery challenges and difficulties and make you less vulnerable to relapse, anxiety or depression.


One of the challenges of recovery is finding a sustainable structure for your time. Many addicted people lose structure in their daily lives due to their addictive behaviour. Once in recovery, they are also faced with filling the time that they previously spent using or obtaining substances. During residential treatment programs, clients are provided with a clear sense of structure for each day. However, it can be difficult to impose this kind of structure on regular life after treatment. Regular exercise can be a great component of a positive daily or weekly structure. The kind of consistency and motivation required to maintain an exercise regimen also teaches other important recovery skills such as commitment and discipline.

Setting Goals

Setting achievable, specific goals is very useful in recovery. It allows you to track your progress and to identify aspects of your recovery that you must work on. Exercise helps us to develop the habit of setting and achieving goals. One of the benefits of a consistent exercise regimen is that it allows you to track your progress and see the benefits of your efforts in a clear, concrete way. It also provides a clear sense of purpose, which can be very useful during recovery. Setting clear, achievable goals and gradually building on them is a great habit in both exercise and recovery.


Exercise can have a very positive effect on self-esteem. It improves cognitive function, energy levels and mood, meaning we will generally feel more positive with regular exercise. It also improves physical health, which often helps people see themselves in a more positive way. Building self-esteem is a crucial aspect of recovery, and exercise can be really helpful in achieving this.

New Social Contacts

Often, addicted people’s social lives largely revolve around their addictive behaviour. Even if many of your contacts will not enable or encourage addictive behaviour, you may still associate them with this behaviour, and spending time with them may be triggering. This means that, in the early phase of recovery, an addicted person may be lacking in healthy social contacts and activities. Joining a sports team or hiking group can be a great way of forming new social contacts while also taking advantage of the many other benefits of exercise. Group exercise can also be easier to sustain over a long period because of the social aspect and the motivation provided by others.

Benefits of the Outdoors

Depending on your choice of activity, exercise may allow you to take advantage of the many benefits of the outdoors in recovery. Spending time outdoors improves mood, energy levels, cognitive function and sleep, leaving you in much better shape to maintain recovery. We recently published a blog going into further detail on the benefits of the outdoors in recovery.

Immune System Effects

Regular exercise boosts cardiovascular health, respiratory function and the immune system. This makes you more likely to avoid illnesses and fatigue,  making you less vulnerable to recovery challenges and relapse.


Some forms of exercise, such as yoga and pilates, incorporate mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness exercises can help to resist negative or invasive thoughts and anxiety. When practiced regularly, they can also be very helpful in resisting cravings. Being able to draw on mindfulness techniques learned through forms of exercise can be of great support in difficult moments.

Exercise at Addiction Treatment Centres

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres’ clients can take advantage of some of these benefits during residential treatment programs. Our inpatient addiction treatment centres are located in scenic, peaceful settings that are conducive to recovery. Clients can go for walks or engage in mindfulness exercises which are a useful component of the treatment process. Our centres also have excellent gym facilities, meaning clients can begin an exercise routine to benefit their recovery during treatment and can then implement it into their lives after residential treatment.

Regular exercise is a reliable and powerful recovery tool. If you are in any stage of recovery, consider beginning an exercise routine that works for you. If you would like any more information on any aspect of recovery, contact Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres today.

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres

We offer residential and outpatient rehab treatment programs for addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

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