Drug abuse in America has reached epidemic proportions, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Each day, more than 100 Americans inadvertently end their lives by overdosing on opioids. These drugs, which include heroine, fentanyl and certain prescription pain relievers, are often prescribed by well-intentioned physicians for patients with chronic pain conditions. However, ease of access has significantly contributed to this public health crisis.
There is no one path toward recovery that is right for each afflicted individual. But, a mounting body of evidence suggests that exercise may replace drug and alcohol use as a healthy alternative reward for the brain.
The Chicago Tribune points out that the human brain gives the body a chemical reward during and after exercise. It is the same chemical that triggers a sense of pleasure when using. The theory is that many people in recovery may be able to receive the same level of satisfaction by swapping an unhealthy addiction for one that has pronounced health benefits.
In addition to being a healthy reward trigger, exercise may mitigate some of the negative effects of long-term drug or alcohol use. When the body is sufficiently worked, it can effectively shut down at night, allowing people to rest and recuperate. Exercise can also stave off depression, anxiety and stress.
Exercise can help an individual address stressors and triggers in a healthy and productive way. For instance, a person who uses after an argument with his or her spouse or partner may get the same internal resolution/relief from a 30-minute jog. As an added benefit, their mental clarity remains intact, and they are able to handle issues and cravings from a position of strength.
Cravings, which tend to be the weak point in many recovery efforts, should be ridden out in a safe place, and the gym may certainly qualify as such. Exercise can help a person in recovery abstain from using which can help break the cycle of addiction. Mental health benefits are not the only positive way that exercise affects an individual with a substance use disorder. A focus on physical health can increase a person’s overall wellness and make them feel good about themselves. Exercising builds confidence, and meeting exercise goals offers the individual an opportunity to reach positive milestones. This will encourage more positive actions, such as eating a healthy diet and socializing with peers sans substances. Exercise can also boost immunity and it pumps oxygen to the brain, which may help heal damaged nerve connections caused by drug or alcohol overuse.
Types of exercise
The four most important types of exercise, according to Harvard University, are aerobic, balance, stretching and strengthening. Some of the most popular forms of exercise include running, jogging, weightlifting, Pilates, and yoga. Less regimented physical fitness routines include hiking, biking and swimming. If you’re a senior, exercises like stretching, walking, and using resistance bands can work well. Each individual must determine what types of exercise is right for their personal needs.
Substance abuse disorders don’t discriminate. They are cruel and unkind and quickly wear away a person’s identity. Drugs and alcohol ruin relationships and separate families each day. Exercise is an excellent alternative for many in recovery and one that will not only enhance their mental and physical health, but may strengthen their bonds with loved ones. Many exercise programs are family-friendly and activities, such as hiking, offer an opportunity to reconnect with both nature – which has proven mental health benefits – and family and friends that may have been pushed aside while using.
If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance abuse or mental health crisis, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP for an immediate referral to a local treatment center or support group.
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