Substance abuse treatment includes a variety of therapies to help people learn to manage cravings for drugs or alcohol and maintain a life of recovery from addiction. One of these therapies includes providing access to exercise of various kinds, which can offer multiple benefits for people who are working toward recovery from substance abuse.

Along with the well-documented benefits that exercise has for a person’s physical health and fitness, exercise has been demonstrated to provide both physical and emotional benefit for people who are recovering from substance abuse. This includes helping to manage the symptoms of withdrawal, providing coping tools during the treatment process, and offering motivational support and focus during aftercare and throughout a life of recovery.

Because each person is different, and no one treatment plan is effective for every individual, working through the process of incorporating an exercise regime into an addiction treatment program follows a specific series of steps to customize the regime and provide the best possible benefit to the person in treatment.

exercise program

Steps to an Exercise Program in Treatment

See how exercise can assist an individual in the recovery process

Step 1: Meet with a supervising physician to ensure readiness to initiate an exercise regime.

Once a person has entered rehab, it is important to work with the individual’s treatment team to create the treatment plan. With exercise as part of the plan, the individual meets with the supervising physician to assess the person’s readiness to participate in exercise. People with specific health issues or who have injuries may not be able to participate in an exercise program right away.

In addition, those who are recovering from severe withdrawal symptoms during the detox process might not be able to participate in an exercise program immediately. For this reason, it is important to get a doctor’s permission before beginning exercise.

On the other hand, for people who are experiencing mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms, the idea of beginning an exercise program should not be dismissed right away. As described in a study from Psychopharmacology, exercise can actually help ease withdrawal discomforts, such as:

  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Lack of concentration
  • Restlessness or tension
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Cravings

It can be difficult for a person to feel motivated to exercise during the discomfort of withdrawal. However, the positive feelings that result from making the effort to get exercise can soon make it easier to stay engaged in the program.

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Step 2: Assess physical needs.

Once a doctor has determined that the person can participate in exercise, it’s important to assess the physical needs and goals for the individual. Long-term drug abuse can result in a number of physical ailments, depending on the type of drug abused, that can be aided through exercise. As described by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these effects include:

  • Weight gain
  • Muscular atrophy
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Breathing problems

By introducing exercise into substance abuse treatment, the body can begin to rebuild muscle, lose fat, and improve heart rate, circulation, and breathing.

To determine what type of exercise a particular individual needs, the treatment facility staff members work with the person to assess the physical issues that exist and how exercise may help alleviate them. The person’s physical restrictions are also taken into consideration, potentially limiting certain types of exercise. Appropriate exercises are then suggested based on the treatment facility’s offerings and the individual’s ability to participate.

Step 3: Assess psychological needs.

Exercise increases production of endorphins and other natural hormones in the body that can:

  • Improve symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Decrease feelings of pain
  • Increase energy
  • Encourage positive outlook, self-esteem, and confidence

As described in Frontiers in Psychiatry, these benefits can all be help during addiction treatment by decreasing the desire to use drugs. The rehab center treatment team can take the individual’s mental health symptoms, co-occurring medical conditions, and treatment goals into account and then recommend types of exercise that will support the individual’s needs.

Different types of exercise may contribute to these areas in different ways. For example, a gentle, meditative exercise like yoga can ease symptoms of anxiety, while a more intense running program can help lift mood and soothe depression.

Step 4: Determine interest and motivation level for specific types of exercise.

An important element of addiction treatment is the individual’s motivation to participate. A study from Addiction determined that people who were motivated to engage in treatment were more likely to complete treatment programs and have positive long-term results.

For this reason, when considering the exercise element in the treatment plan, determining the individual’s particular interests can help. For example, one person might be interested in swimming, but lose motivation when weight training. For that individual, incorporating swimming time into the daily plan can play into the person’s motivation to stick with the overall treatment program, making it more likely that the person will achieve recovery.

Working with the treatment facility staff to determine the program that is most likely to keep the individual engaged in both the exercise plan and the overall treatment plan can make the time in rehab more enjoyable and thus more effective for the person.

Step 5: Develop an individualized exercise program.

Depending on all the above factors and the person’s special needs based on any other injuries, illnesses, or co-occurring conditions, exercise types are selected and incorporated into the individual’s treatment plan. Some of the exercises that may be available to incorporate into the program include:

  • Yoga, tai chi, or other meditative physical practices
  • Running or other forms cardio
  • Weight training
  • Circuit training
  • Aerobics
  • Swimming

For people who may not be up for the rigors of an intense program, perhaps yoga and swimming could be incorporated into an effective plan. On the other hand, people who need more intense exercise may get into a program that involves cardio and weight training. Customizing the program to the individual will make exercise more fun and motivating.

Step 6: Get started, slowly.

There are several reasons that it is important for an individual in addiction treatment to ease into exercise:

  • General level of health and physical fitness: People who have been using drugs or alcohol for a long period of time may not have engaged in exercise for quite some time. If a person’s level of fitness is low, then jumping quickly into a high-intensity program can result in injury. Similarly, a person who is ill may not have the stamina to perform intense exercise. Starting slow and building up strength gradually is the best way for these individuals to get needed exercise without losing motivation.
  • Effects of drug abuse on heart and lungs: The National Institute on Drug Abuse describes the effect that drug use can have on the cardiovascular system and respiratory system. Increased heart rate and blood pressure or suppressed respiratory function can sometimes be made worse by intense exercise. On the other hand, building up fitness can improve these areas as well.
  • Nutritional imbalances: People who have been abusing drugs may have specific nutritional deficiencies based on the metabolism of the substance in question. When engaging in exercise, it is important to make sure that the body’s nutrients are not being depleted even more. The treatment program can provide healthy meals to support the level of exercise the person engages in.
  • Exercise addiction: Using exercise to minimize cravings and re-engage the natural hormonal balance that leads to a healthier body and mind is a great way for people to support recovery from substance abuse. However, overdoing it can lead to a dependence on the hormones naturally produced in the process of exercise that is similar to drug addiction. A moderate approach to exercise can make sure that the individual is not trading one addiction for another.

For these reasons, starting out an exercise program at a pace that is not too intense is most likely to help people develop healthy exercise habits without burning out or causing injury.

Once these steps are complete, the individual will hopefully be able and motivated to engage in regular exercise. By participating in this type of moderate regime that is designed to meet the individual’s physical and psychological needs, people in substance abuse treatment can build the strength, confidence, and positive attitude that support long-term recovery.

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