The federal government’s health guidelines state that healthy adults can reduce the risk of many chronic health issues with at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week. Some of these health conditions include mood disorders, like depression and anxiety. Exercise has consistently been shown to moderate brain chemistry, improve mood, and balance mood swings.
Addiction is a disease of the brain, which involves compulsive consumption of intoxicating substances, which change brain chemistry. The condition is caused by a complex relationship between genetics, family history, environment, and mental health. When a person enters a rehabilitation program to overcome their addiction, they need as much support and as many tools as possible to maintain their long-term health and sobriety.
As the link between mental and physical health is becoming better understood, more rehabilitation programs are incorporating exercise, fitness trainers, and physical fitness instructors into their therapy programs. Alongside individual and group therapy, fitness trainers can help people recovering from addiction develop healthy habits, improve their physical and mental health, and raise their self-esteem, among many other benefits.
Fitness trainers can offer a variety of exercise classes to those in rehabilitation programs. Some of the most popular exercise programs at treatment centers across the country include:
Exercise Programs in Treatment
- Yoga, which combines meditation, flexibility, and strength training with breathing exercises
- Tai chi and other martial arts, which focus on discipline and attention to the physical body
- Walking or hiking, which has long been used as a form of mindfulness and exercise
- Running, which improves endurance, lung capacity, heart strength, and releases endorphins
- Team sports, which can improve physical strength and endurance as well as social skills
How Fitness Instructors and Trainers Can Aid Recovery
Whether in a rehabilitation program or in the outside world, working with a fitness trainer helps a person understand their current physical health and create a plan for where they want their health to be. A professional, certified fitness instructor or trainer gathers information about the person’s current physical health state, including weight, body mass index, endurance, strength, and existing exercise routine. Then, the trainer will help their client create a plan, which includes short-term and long-term goals. The plan will outline weekly goals, daily exercise routines, and may include changes to diet to help improve physical fitness (such as adding more lean protein and taking away simple carbohydrates). The trainer supports their client’s success with positive reinforcement and other motivational techniques.
In rehabilitation, a fitness trainer can offer many benefits to people working toward addiction recovery. Exercise affects both mental and physical health, which can bolster recovery. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that their studies show exercise, when partnered with psychotherapy, can help people quit smoking and maintain abstinence from cigarettes. NIDA suggests that exercise can help reduce relapse rates in addiction treatment for other substances too.
When a person in rehabilitation works with a fitness instructor, they can experience various benefits, such as:
- Improved mental and emotional health: The brain’s risk/reward system can be changed by addiction. When a person ingests an intoxicating substance, the brain releases dopamine and other neurotransmitters that are associated with reward. Then, the brain begins to rely on the presence of addictive substances, such as alcohol, opioids, tobacco, or cocaine, to release enough neurotransmitters for the person to feel normal.Even after detox, the individual may experience cravings for the substance of addiction, as the brain seeks to release neurotransmitters and stimulate the risk/reward system. Exercise has been shown, in numerous medical studies, to help moderate dopamine and other neurotransmitters. With the stimulation of this part of the brain, psychological effects of addiction are easier to overcome.Additionally, many people who struggle with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, also struggle with addiction. Instead of self-medicating with intoxicating substances, exercise during rehabilitation helps brain chemistry become more stable. In conjunction with psychotherapy and necessary psychiatric medications, exercise can help moderate mood.Exercise can also improve memory. Many addictive substances damage the memory, especially if abused on a long-term basis. A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that routine aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus. This suggests that memory damage from long-term substance abuse could be reversed, at least in part.
- Changed habits: One of the larger issues during rehabilitation is developing new, healthier habits. Even after successfully detoxing from an addictive substance, many people working toward recovery find that ingesting drugs or alcohol was part of their normal routine. Without substance abuse, they may feel like they have no structure in their lives; this could increase anxiety, depression, restlessness, and the potential for relapse.Generally, fitness trainers work with their clients to change routine behaviors to make healthier choices. This includes taking the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible, frequently going to the gym, and finding other ways to change sedentary behaviors. In a rehabilitation setting, incorporating an exercise routine not only improves mental and physical health, it adds structure to the person’s day. Having a fresh routine means that the person overcoming addiction has a new lifestyle that they can focus on maintaining. With encouragement from a fitness instructor, they will also learn to make healthier long-term choices. When they leave rehabilitation, they will have structure to work with instead of feeling lost or helpless.
- Reduced pain: The endorphin system in the brain, as well as the cannabinoid and opioid receptors, is linked to pain management. When a person gets injured, the brain releases endorphins to moderate the pain for a short period of time. This release may make the person feel “high” or euphoric. Drugs and alcohol can also release endorphins; cannabis binds to the cannabinoid receptors, and narcotic drugs, from Percocet to heroin, bind to the opioid receptors. People who struggle with chronic pain or long-term pain from a serious injury may become addicted to these substances to ease their pain and to make them feel good.Exercise has been shown to help reduce pain in some studies. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical therapy has been shown to work better for long-term health than prescription opioid painkillers. During rehabilitation, a fitness trainer can help their client improve physical fitness, which moderates pain, improves strength to support the body, and releases endorphins naturally.
- Lessened physical damage: A study surveying several people in recovery from methamphetamine addiction, one of the most physically harmful drugs, showed that working with a fitness instructor for eight weeks improved endurance and body composition. This can help to reverse some of the muscle atrophy and lung damage that meth can cause. Exercise improves heart and lung function, muscle tone, and blood flow, and it may even improve the digestive system. People who have developed health issues related to drug or alcohol abuse can use exercise in rehabilitation. They can continue to use exercise after they leave the program to improve their physical health and reduce the long-term impact of substance abuse.
- Social support: Fitness instructors cheer their clients on and measure their success with improved weight loss, muscle tone, miles run, or pounds lifted. A key component to rehabilitation programs is social support. Without emotional support from friends, family, support groups, and a clinical team, it can be difficult for a person to recover from addiction. When a fitness trainer is provided as part of a rehabilitation program, they can offer positive reinforcement and emotional support while the person continues to work on overcoming their addiction. The trainer can measure progress and offer encouragement along the way.
Many rehabilitation programs offer exercise programs and fitness instructors as part of their overall program. When combined with psychotherapy and psychiatric medications as necessary, regular exercise can be very helpful in moderating brain chemistry, improving physical health, reducing cravings, and improving abstinence rates.