Diet and Exercise Play a Vital Role in Addiction Recovery

For individuals in recovery from addiction disorders, diet and exercise play crucial roles in restoring health and balance in their lives. These two classic lifestyle interventions do more than create healthy habits that can benefit anyone; they help those suffering from addiction to overcome challenges that could derail them throughout their recovery.

Exercise provides multiple benefits for the person in recovery. One of its most important roles is creating a structure to the day. Addicts need to know what to do when, particularly early in recovery. They are rebuilding their lives and having set times for specific activities serves a critically important function. Exercise, in particular, has the advantage of being quantifiable and measurable. Someone in recovery could run 30 minutes every morning at seven or take a Zumba class right after breakfast or do three circuits in the weight room three days a week. A walk after lunch might help them work off some anxiety or release natural endorphins to help them get through the day. Yoga or gentle stretching at seven in the evening could help release stress and keep them in a positive mental state going into the evening.

Regularly exercising also represents a positive commitment to recovery and to themselves. Each time they do the set exercise activity, they can check off another commitment kept, another goal achieved. Mixing regular, low-key exercise in throughout the day provides multiple points for positive reinforcement that builds self-esteem and confidence.

Naturally, exercise helps those recovering from addiction feel better physically. It also helps mentally, as it builds their faith in themselves and replaces damaging habits with healthy ones. Regular repetition of activity and incorporation throughout the day fills in some of the gaps of time previously occupied by thinking about, obtaining and using the addictive substance.

All that movement, stretching and strengthening assists in healing the body from some of the disorders that commonly co-occur with substance abuse, such as hypertension, diabetes and depression. The weight loss that often accompanies increased physical activity can lower blood glucose levels and blood pressure. At the same time the increased movement, particularly if done outdoors, can significantly stimulate the release of serotonin and other “feel good” hormones that can alleviate depression.

For those early in the recovery process, sleep often proves elusive. Regular exercise is an important component of good sleep hygiene. Both a regular routine and the physical fatigue that follows a good workout can facilitate more sound sleep and reduce the time it takes to achieve a restful slumber.

Exercise also plays a role in reversing the accelerated aging that typically accompanies addiction. It helps restore a more youthful glow to the skin by improving circulation, reduces fat, and increases general vibrancy.

When working with those with an addiction, however, it is necessary to remember that there can be too much of a good thing. Often those with an addiction disorder have trouble understanding that initially. They may think that if one lap is good then three must be outstanding. Or, if they exercise for half an hour a day and lose one pound a week, then exercising for two hours will help them lose four. Any exercise regimen should be overseen by an exercise physiologist who is familiar with addiction recovery. This is because individuals with addiction disorders often crave instant gratification and this hyper-enthusiasm could lead to injuries. Needing instant gratification, the individual turns to pain medication, and the cycle begins again.

As important as exercise is, diet cannot be ignored. Recovering individuals do best on a low-glycemic, dopamine-boosting diet that includes most protein sources, berries, oranges, avocados, many green vegetables, some beans and selected grains, and dark chocolate.1 Addicts seek dopamine, and if they do not get it through their diet, they will seek it out. On the flip side, simple sugars and refined flour complicate brain healing and slows the body’s ability to recover.2,3 Without the proper diet and exercise, post-acute withdrawals will be protracted which can discourage patients and contribute to higher recidivism.

Eating a healthy diet helps restore necessary vitamins and minerals as well. Those with addiction disorders have been ingesting poisons and abusing their bodies. They suffer from serious nutritional deficiencies that can impede brain function, suppress growth, damage teeth, and age internal organs.

Together, a supervised exercise program with a nutritious, low-sugar, high dopamine diet and ongoing therapy establish the groundwork for a solid, lasting recovery and good long-term health.

1. Borsten J. Dr. Kenneth Blum: Are You Getting Enough Dopamine for Dinner? April 22, 2015.
2. Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, Stern E, Rojas R, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 25,2013.
3. Glatter R. The Price to Pay for Eating Highly Processed Carbohydrates. Forbes. June 30, 2013.