You might not have thought running shoes would be useful as a treatment for addiction, but scientists are now learning that what is good for your heart is good for your recovery. Exercise can have a healing effect on the brain and help improve a range of physical and mental health conditions. However, you need to take it easy in the beginning and develop other healthy habits to support your exercise program. Here is what you need to do.
How Exercise Affects the Brain
Long-term substance abuse can cause damage to the brain, which can range from minor damage of brain cells to destroying them completely. This happens mainly in regions of the brain associated with memory, emotion, and decision making, which is why people in recovery are more likely to experience impulsivity and mental health disorders.
Researchers are now discovering that exercise can help undo this damage. Exercise increases the level of a protein in the brain called BDNF -- this protein causes the brain to build new neurons and to repair old ones. Exercise also improves the symptoms of some mental health conditions, especially stress and depression, by increasing levels of endorphins and certain neurotransmitters in the brain.
What Types of Exercise to Do
According to the research conducted on exercise and addiction so far, the best form of exercise you can do is aerobic exercise. This includes any form of exercise that gets you sweating and breathing heavily -- jogging, swimming, cycling, rowing, and circuit training are just a few examples. According to a 2017 study published in The Lancet, 150 minutes of moderate activity each week is highly beneficial for your health, so this is a good minimum to aim for. However, it’s important to build up slowly. People in recovery have often led unhealthy, inactive lives for some time, and may have weaker hearts due to past substance use. If this sounds like you, start out with 5-minute walks, and build up slowly from there.
Thinking Long Term
Increasing your activity level changes your nutritional needs slightly, because the body needs protein and other nutrients to help repair exercise’s effects on the body. If you’re not sure what and how much you should eat, check out this guide from Precision Nutrition. As your fitness improves and you start exercising at a higher intensity, you’ll also have to think about pre- and post-workout nutrition -- eating a meal with carbs and protein about 1-2 hours before and 1-2 hours after exercise is all you’ll need. Remember to stay hydrated, and take electrolyte supplements after training -- especially if you trained for a long time or in a hot environment.
Body and Mind
As you now know, the body and mind are linked, and if you train one, you train the other. That’s why it’s a good idea to supplement your training program with exercises that will improve your mental health. Meditation is a great option here -- according to a review of 47 studies published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, meditation is effective in reducing the symptoms of anxiety, depression, pain, and stress. You can find a great guide on how to meditate for beginners at the A Life of Productivity blog here. Other techniques you can try to improve your mental health include cognitive behavioral therapy exercises and progressive relaxation techniques.
When you’re in recovery, you need to use every tool at your disposal to help maintain your abstinence and rebuild your life. Exercise is a powerful tool that you can use in conjunction with your other treatments and support sessions. If you start out slowly and build up the time and intensity of your program gradually, you’ll be able to see long-term benefits from exercise. When will you start?
Author: Susan Treadway