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Advantages of Exercise in an Addiction Treatment Program

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To address the multifaceted aspects of an addiction, exercise can be used as a central counselling tool in the recovery process.  Whether the addiction is to a substance such as alcohol or a behaviour such as gambling, exercise can actively assist an individual by addressing and dealing with their substance abuse. Exercise may accomplish this through three main elements; firstly, by regulating chemical balances in the brain; secondly, by providing an avenue to create healthy goals during recovery; and thirdly, by improving long-term health.  Author credit to: “Fiona Parascandalo, B.A, M.A
Co-Founder, Duo Addiction Support”

Substance Dependence


One of the reasons exercise is such an effective tool in addiction recovery process is the comparable effects of exercise and substance abuse on the brain. In simple terms, exercise and illicit substances can cause similar chemical reactions in the brain’s “reward centre” (more properly titled the nucleus accumbens). When using cocaine, for example, dopamine floods your reward centre and causes feelings of pleasure. This flooding of dopamine also happens with physical activity. The connection between all types of addiction – whether its cocaine, alcohol, or food – is a reward centre that is out of control  (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008).

An addictive substance causes neurotransmitters to create pathways in the brain’s limbic system which associates the substance with a release of “feel good” neurotransmitters such as serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. This chemical reaction causes the brain to motivate itself to engage in the activity that caused the initial feel good chemical release (May, 1953). Someone who has become dependent on that substance or behaviour may become extremely motivated to attain the substance or continue with the activity that caused the pleasurable chemical release and will engage in these activities even when it damages their health or leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices (Leshner, 2001).

The same chemical pathways that are formed with an addiction are precisely how exercise can be used to treat it. Exercise releases chemicals (serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine) in the nucleus accumbens along the same pathways as the addictive substance/behaviour and creates “synaptic detours” (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008). When these detours are engaged, the individual will experience the same pleasurable feelings they experienced during substance use. The exchange of exercise for substance abuse is so effective that smokers who exercise when trying to quit have been able to double or triple the intervals between cigarettes. Further, studies have also found as little as 10 minutes of exercise can significantly lessen cravings for alcohol (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008).


The other side of using exercise in an addiction treatment program is the impacts of exercise on lifestyle choices and long-term health. Exercise can be used throughout all of the Stages of Change as it has positive impacts on prevention, treatment, and maintenance of the recovery process. Exercise also helps reduce stress and anxiety, two emotions that often occur during a treatment program. (visit my site for more details:

An important aspect of dealing with an addiction is removing urgent behaviours and replacing them with full awareness of the mind, body, and spirit (Chopra, 1997). Fully engaging in an exercise regimen allows the participant to take control of their recovery. An exercise regimen introduces a new pursuit that involves hard work, commitment, planning, and goal settings. Achieving exercise goals improves feelings of self-control and self-motivation which spread to other areas of life (Ratey & Hagerman, 2008).

A large part of an addiction treatment program is developing healthy lifestyle habits and techniques that are useful in the long-term with the purpose of preventing a relapse. A study by Wendy Lynch, associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University Of Virginia School Of Medicine, found that exercise can “prevent or reduce the likelihood of progressing [substance use] to abuse or dependence, and it can reduce relapse vulnerability.” (Smith, 2014)

Engaging in a routine fitness program and setting specific fitness goals as part of an addiction counselling program provides the participant with an active role in their recovery. This provides the participant with agency to control their recovery and learn how to combat cravings when they arise.

Like any other addiction treatment approach, incorporating fitness into a treatment regime should be done with a professional who can help you through the process. If you are interested in connecting with an addiction counsellor who specializes in this treatment approach, please visit the web site




Chopra, D. (1997). Overcoming Addiction. New York: Harmony Books.

Leshner, A. (2001). Addiction is a Brain Disease. Issues in Science and Technology, 75-80.

May, E. L. (1953). The chemistry of drugs of addiction. The American Journal of Medicine, 540-545.

Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Smith, W. D. (2014). Can Exercise Help Treat Addiction? Retrieved from

Disclaimer:  I am not a doctor and do not  prescribe any methods of practice and if you’re attempting any suggestions or mentions, please note that you are doing so of your own free will and will be held liable for your own outcomes.

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