Physical Activity and Substance Abuse

September 6th, 2018

     It's common knowledge by now that physical activity (PA) and exercise have more benefits than just a beach body. However, the extent to which physical exercise can help prevention, reduction, and treatment of substance abuse is not as well known. In this article, we will review the positive cognitive effects of physical activity, as well as the effect on prevention, reduction and treatment.




Physical Activity and Subtance Abuse

General Cognitive Benefits

       The physical benefits of exercise are well known and has been studied for    over 30 years. Thoughtful scientific study has revealed the cognitive benefits that exercise also promotes. According to an article for Public Health  Reports by C. Barr Taylor, James F. Sallis and Richard Needle, "evidence suggests physical activity might...reduce the symptoms of anxiety; and alter aspects of coronary prone (Type A) behavior and physiological responses to stressors." (C. Barr Taylor et al 1985) More generally, "exercise has been associated with an improved sense of well-being" (C. Barr Taylor et al 1985) and "...some physical activities may offer the chance for identity transformation." (Thompson) What is known is that "physical activity and exercise appear to alleviate symptoms associated with mild to moderate depression, improved self-concept, confidence in social skills, reduction of symptoms of anxiety and perhaps improved mood." (C. Barr Taylor et al). Physical exercise in general helps to improve mental health in areas that are related to substance abuse and addiction. As we will see, studies suggest that in addition to these benefits, physical activity can help in the treatment of substance abuse in even more specific ways. "The mechanism of action for  this therapeutic effect is considered to be the increase in endorphins induced  during moderate to intense aerobic exercise." (McArdle, Katch & Katch)

  Specific Benefits to Recovery

     As mentioned earlier, aerobic exercise can increase the release of endorphins which "is considered relevant to the treatment of addiction because the same neural systems are activated by both substance use and aerobic exercise." (Palmer et al.) In the case of aerobic exercise, the benefits are two-fold. In addition to the general cognitive health improvements, physical activity will act in a positive way on the same neural systems activated by substance use. Furthermore, "PA and health-oriented exercise interventions could provide an impact...across the range of levels of use and have lower risk of adverse events compared to pharmacological treatment." (Thompson et al.) The important part here is that PA helps "across the range of levels of use" meaning that no matter the substance, there are positive effects to be had using exercise as therapy. The question then becomes, what are the positive effects?

     PA has a positive correlation with addiction recovery in a few different areas. "Physical activity interventions (including those involving sport, exercise, or general lifestyle physical activity) may have the potential to impact three domains of alcohol and/or substance use;

1. Reduce the risk of progression to alcohol and/or substance use (PREVENTION);

2. Support individuals to reduce alcohol and/or substance use for harm reduction (REDUCTION), and

3. Promote abstinence and relapse prevention during and/or after treatment of AUD and SUD (TREATMENT)." (Thompson)

So, not only can PA be helpful across all levels of use, but it can also be used across multiple steps of treatment. This is expressed in a couple ways: "from a behavioral perspective, exercise involvement may help avoidance of cues which trigger cravings and relapse, and provide exposure to new environments...From the physiological perspective, there is evidence from animal studies to suggest that neurobiological changes associated with exercise help to explain the consistent evidence that exercise acutely reduces consumption of cocaine, morphine, nicotine and alcohol." (Thompson) There is also a study out of Finland that "tracked 1,870 twin pairs from 16-27 years of age and concluded that low levels of physical activity increased the risk of both alcohol and illicit drug use." (Thompson) Exercise creates "certain mind-body modalities [that] appear to reduce alcohol cravings and induce greater feelings of self-control, autonomy and personal responsibility." (Turner & Dougherty) Not only will PA help across levels of use and steps of treatment, but it has been linked to a reduction in cravings as well as a decrease in risk of substance abuse.


     When you take all the benefits of PA together, it becomes apparent that exercise can be an extremely beneficial complement to treatment for substance abuse. It has been shown to improve mental health in areas that correlate to addiction. It can be used in prevention, reduction, as well as treatment. And finally, appears to reduce the risk of use and cravings, while simultaneously helping promote abstinence after healing. As a result, "...a well-designed fitness program can be a positive addition to in-patient drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. And the benefits remain once the patients have finished rehab: abstinence rates are significantly higher for those who participate in an on-site exercise program and continue to exercise following their discharge." (Turner & Dougherty)


     At Hower Lodge, we believe in the holistic approach, assisting residents in relieving the allergy of the body, quieting the obsession of the mind and learning how to balance emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of the body. Feel free to reach out to us with any questions. We look forward to being a part of your journey to recovery.

Best Regards,

               ~ Hower Lodge Staff