There is more to addiction recovery than just avoiding drug use. Building other habits, pastimes, and healthy activities can not only distract the person from the desire to use drugs, but can even diminish the person’s cravings through regulation of natural body chemistry and performance. For this reason, getting fit by incorporating recommended diet and exercise practices into aftercare can help individuals in recovery maintain sobriety and avoid relapse.
Many reputable addiction treatment programs include nutrition and exercise programs in their treatment plans to help people who are on the path to recovery develop behavior alternatives to doing drugs, as well as to help the body recover from drug abuse. In more comprehensive programs, treatment plans also encourage those in recovery to continue following a healthy diet and exercise plan in aftercare.
According to Medical News Today, being fit has to do with being able to participate in physical activity. However, more than that, it is the physical attributes that help a body function within a reasonably healthy level of activity. This involves more than just being able to run fast, lift weights, or be flexible. It means being able to participate in activities with the body functioning at its best possible level for the individual’s personal capabilities.
- Cardiorespiratory performance (how well the heart and lungs work)
- Muscle strength
- Muscle and other flexibility
- Endurance (being able to be active for long periods without tiring quickly)
- Body composition (having a balance of muscle and fat that supports activity)
Exercise and nutrition are the main factors that a person can use to improve fitness. Through nutrition, the body receives the building blocks needed to help each body system work well. Exercise, on the other hand, takes these building blocks and uses them to develop the body’s capabilities and improve physical performance.
Fitness and Recovery
Substance abuse takes a toll on the body’s mental and physical capabilities. Because of the way drugs and alcohol affect the body’s chemistry and certain aspects of physical function, using these substances can diminish a person’s fitness level. Getting into fitness and nutrition programs in recovery can help to correct these issues to some degree, and it can even help with some of the mental issues that arise.
It can help to understand some of the ways that drugs affect the body, and how nutrition and exercise help to counter these effects.
Nutrition and Drug Abuse
When the body makes brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, it uses various nutrients that come from food, as explained in the book Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects. Substance abuse primarily affects the body by changing the way these neurotransmitters are produced and function. As a result, certain nutrients may be used more or less than they would otherwise, creating an imbalance in other systems.
For example, stimulants that increase production and use of norepinephrine in the body can result in higher use of certain vitamins and nutrients, such as:
- Vitamins A, C, E, and the B-complex vitamins
- Essential fatty acids
- Minerals, such as magnesium
- Proteins (amino acids, specifically tyrosine)
In addition, stimulants tend to cause a person to have a diminished appetite, which means the person probably can’t replace these nutrients adequately, let alone get them to a degree that supports the use of the norepinephrine. This, in turn, leads to nutritional deficiencies.
Different drugs affect body chemistry in different ways. Depressants can result in weight gain, which is a different nutritional issue. Each nutritional deficiency or challenge requires a different plan to correct the issue and get the body back on track, as described in a study from the University of Kent Centre for Health Services Studies. As a result, sticking to a recommended nutritional plan after treatment can help keep the person fit and feeling well, making it less likely that relapse will occur.
How Exercise Helps
Exercise is a way of improving physical function by participating in activities that challenge the muscles, lungs, heart, and other parts of the body, increasing strength, flexibility, and endurance. Another result of exercise is improved ability to efficiently use nutrition to increase energy and ability. Because of this, exercise can help a person who has struggled with drug use regain some of the physical health that has been lost through using the substance of abuse.
Using the same example above, the University of Mississippi Medical Center describes that norepinephrine activity can be enhanced through exercise. In fact, the body makes norepinephrine in direct response to the degree of exercise – more intense activity means higher levels of norepinephrine. Because of this, people who have struggled with meth or other stimulant addiction may find relief from cravings if they participate in a regular exercise program. However, it can be important to make sure that the individual follows a recommended plan, as exercise can sometimes itself become addictive.
Nutrition and Addiction: Facts and Statistics
Different drugs can cause different kinds of nutritional deficiencies and issues, which mean that people in recovery and aftercare may need to maintain a diet plan that replaces these nutrients. For example, alcohol abuse and addiction can lead to low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1), which causes a condition called Korsakoff’s syndrome, which can lead to memory loss, other cognitive issues, and even.
On the other hand, according to a study from the Many Hands Sustainability Center, some doctors who incorporate nutrition into their treatment programs have reported success rates from 70 percent to 92 percent in helping people achieve and maintain recovery. This is compared with a 25 percent success rate with 12-Step groups alone.
Facts about Exercise in Addiction Recovery
Exercise can help to treat addiction itself. Research from Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews indicates that exercise can intervene directly in the dopamine system, among others, helping to satisfy the physical cravings that people have for drugs that directly interact with this system.
In addition, exercise can relieve some of the other mental and physical health conditions that may contribute to a person’s desire to use drugs or alcohol. For example, a study from the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that individuals who participated in exercise as part of treatment for depression were more likely to report a decrease in depressive symptoms. Depression often co-occurs with addiction, so treating this condition can often also help to diminish drug cravings.
An article from Drug and Alcohol Dependence supports this, demonstrating that exercise can help with multiple types of contributing factors, including depression, stress, anxiety, and impulsiveness.
As with anyone who is trying to improve nutritional fitness, it’s important to eat a balanced diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruits for a wide range of nutrients, as well as lean protein and healthy fats. For someone who has been struggling with substance abuse but is currently in recovery, it may also be important to make sure that any nutritional plan provided by the treatment program be followed as recommended after treatment is over.
This plan may include the following tips:
- Make sure to get 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
- Eat lean protein, including fish, chicken, lean beef, or vegetarian proteins if needed.
- Limit saturated fat; getting healthy fats from fish, avocados, seeds, and nuts.
- Take a vitamin supplement, if needed.
- Remember that eating well is a tool to build fitness; eating itself is not the main goal.
- Avoid fad diets or diets that require strict calorie limits, as these may contribute to further nutrient loss. Look for balanced nutrition from non-processed foods as much as possible.
The National Library of Health Medline Plus demonstrates multiple key practices and nutrients to emphasize in recovery. In particular, it recommends that the individual stick to planned mealtimes and not snack outside of meals. This can help the body maintain a constant source of nutrition, and it can also help to prevent food abuse from developing and growing into a different kind of addiction, as discussed below.
As mentioned above, while exercise certainly help, it is possible to develop an exercise addiction to compensate for some substance addictions. Because of this, it is important to stick to a moderate program. Some high-intensity exercise can lead to the person over-exercising for the adrenaline and other neurotransmitter responses.
Some tips regarding exercise in recovery include:
- See a doctor to make sure the specific exercise is appropriate for the person’s health level.
- Start slowly; don’t push too hard.
- Consider yoga for its positive effects on both physical and mental health.
- Incorporate cardio, strength, and flexibility exercises to build rounded fitness.
- Don’t use exercise alone for building fitness; find other activities, like sports or games, to participate in.
Again, exercise in aftercare is better viewed as a tool to increase fitness and decrease cravings for drugs, rather than a main treatment goal in and of itself. This can reduce the risk of exercise addiction.
Both exercise and nutrition have been shown to help keep people who are in recovery from using drugs. Along with the evidence above of nutritional support helping people to achieve recovery through nutrition, studies have shown that exercise can do the same. Both exercise and balanced nutrition can help to maintain long-term recovery.
A review from Frontiers in Psychiatry shows that because exercise can do some of the same things for the body and brain that drugs do, it has helped people desire drug use less. The benefit is a reduction of dangerous overdose risk and other health issues caused by drug abuse that can lead to serious problems.
A Word of Caution: Behavioral Addiction
It is important to note that a person’s reliance on food and exercise to feel good can trigger a different kind of addiction. Behavioral addictions can result from a person becoming dependent on these things in the same way that it can happen with alcohol or drugs. Because of this, individuals with a high addiction risk who are adding exercise or nutrition plans to their aftercare should continue working with their treatment team to ensure the program doesn’t get too intense or provide a path to behavioral addiction.
For example, an article in Slate describes research that shows the physical neurochemistry changes in the body after exercise can be similar to those caused by stimulant drugs. While exercise may be able to help a person stay away from drugs, it may also result in the individual substituting one addiction with another. An article from Psychology Today describes similar responses to food. Working with treatment professionals in rehab can help a person know what level of exercise and diet planning to undertake to avoid this.
Exercise and Diet Plans for Recovery
The following are some good examples of diet and exercise plans for people in recovery after treatment has ended:
- Plan to eat only 3-4 meals per day, and do not eat at other times.
- Make sure each meal has a good nutritional balance. A good guide is to fill a quarter of the plate with lean protein, a quarter with grains or starch, and half with vegetables or fruits.
- Work with a dietician or doctor to determine whether any particular nutrients are needed.
- Take a yoga class 2-3 times per week, or practice at home with online videos.
- Strength train 1-2 times per week.
- Take a daily walk of at least 30 minutes.
- Join a recreational sports team.
These are sufficient for developing fitness and helping to manage post-treatment cravings and health needs. More than this may be excessive. A treatment professional can help to create a plan that fits the individual’s specific needs and health issues.
How to Incorporate Exercise and Nutrition into Recovery
A great way to incorporate fitness development into recovery is to start by incorporating it into treatment. Programs that are based on research and experience with addiction treatment are likely to include nutrition and exercise as part of the overall treatment plan. By working with the treatment team, the individual can build nutritional and exercise habits in rehab that can continue once treatment is over.
If exercise and nutrition were not provided with treatment, it is still possible to add them into an aftercare regime.
Resources and References
The following resources can help the individual in aftercare find the right kind of fitness, nutrition, and exercise for post-treatment recovery support:
- Weight Watchers or similar programs that emphasize balanced nutrition on a managed plan
- Nutritionists, dieticians, or personal trainers with experience supporting addiction recovery
- Specific exercise programs, such as Curves or Orange Theory
- Yoga studios that have programs for any level of experience
- Community center exercise or sports programs
Generalized gym memberships or participation in fad diets or dieting websites may not be able to provide the structure needed to support impulse control.
Exercise, Nutrition, and Long-Term Recovery
As explained and demonstrated above, exercise and nutrition can lead to a fitness level that supports long-term addiction recovery. When individuals feel strong, healthy, energetic, and positive about themselves, relapsing to drug use is much less likely. As a result, people feel more able to control impulses, and recovery is extended and strengthened.
A positive fitness routine that includes exercise and nutrition can last a lifetime, serving as an ongoing source of support to avoid drug and alcohol use and associated health problems. By incorporating these activities into aftercare, individuals who have struggled with drug abuse can look forward to more self-confidence, control, and long-term management of addiction.