I don’t know about you, but drugs and alcohol were not my #1 problem. But, they were my #1 solution to everything. Good, bad, or indifferent, it was always a good time to get loaded. When that #1 solution was thankfully no longer an option, I was in desperate need of new solutions.
That’s what recovery is to me; a new set of solutions to facing life on life’s terms that don’t involve sacrificing my dignity or selling my soul to get loaded. The problem is the act of using drugs makes profound changes in our brains which have been reinforced every single time we got changed our brains chemical, emotional, and spiritual reactions on mind-altering substances.
This means that we are going to have find something to replace old cravings and combat triggers. Preferably, this means finding new solutions that are productive and positive since I didn’t quit altering my state of being with drugs and alcohol to just find new ways of punishing myself. This is when exercise and weight training can help reduce those cravings and triggers.
Studies have shown that incorporating exercise into early recovery improved the chances of adhering to a new drug-free lifestyle. Their thoughts were the natural dopamine release may have helped reduce drug cravings and ultimately relapse rates.¹
While they merely studied those addicted to mind or mood altering chemicals (specifically street and illicit drugs), I personally believe you can apply the study’s results to any sort of addiction, not just to drugs or alcohol. Why, though?
Well, whenever you engage in your addiction of choice, your brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is already naturally produces in our brains/bodies and is the feel good chemical that we become addicted to chasing. When dopamine is released on a continual basis due to a specific behavior, that behavior/or chemical, in turn becomes in a sense a hard-wired goal that we chase day in and day out, no matter what the consequences are.
Once this shift occurs in our psyche, then the more likely we are to execute the same behavior the next time we find ourselves in the same exact situation; even when we have a desire to not repeat said behavior.² Those studying this, or even caught in the affliction, shown this to happen with behaviors as simple as foods we crave such as pizza. Though, we know pizza isn’t exactly nutritious or beneficial for our physiques, the fact is that once we eat one piece of pizza the dopamine surge makes it hard to resist a second or third slice. Even if we are feeling hungry, the craving is suppressing any internal reasoning to stop.
NOTE: Why is pizza not beneficial for our physiques? Well our body can break down either protein and saturated fats, or protein and simple carbs…not protein, saturated fats, AND simple carbs which is what pizza is comprised of in copious amounts depending upon how many slices you eat! And the last time that I checked, I’m a 6 slice minimum type of guy hence I refrain from eating it other than a few times per year even though it is my favorite food.
Now, back to the topic on hand. We can use exercise and weight training to help reduce cravings and triggers.
Have you ever hear of something called, “Runner’s High?” It’s the sensation you’re floating or experiencing euphoria after a long and hard run which is a result of you guessed it… dopamine!
This means taking up running can go a long way in battling your brain’s craving for dopamine that your addiction used to provide and can help reduce those cravings and triggers. Just make sure not to overdo running too, and know your body's limits because you could seriously injure yourself if not; although it is the safest and longest known alternative we have to dopamine rushes naturally occurring in the body.
Now, before you make plans to become an ultra-marathon runner and sign up for your first race, let’s talk about the reality of running. Personally with both myself and my clients, I’ve found running in general to be too hard on the body; especially on the knees as well as the ankles and low back. Often times finding that “Runner’s High” takes well over an hour if not two to reach. Sure it effects our brains similarly to what smoking marijuana does³, but for the average person in recovery, expecting them to run for that length of time period is unrealistic and even harmful if they’ve been physically inactive, grossly overweight, or even malnourished in their addiction.
I would much rather you go for long walks or hikes, potentially with new friends you’ve met in recovery, and use this lighter form of physical exercise in conjunction with positive conversation to chase the natural dopamine release that can combat cravings or fight old triggers that cause you to want to seek out those reinforced old behaviors you were addicted to. And remember to seek a physician's expertise before starting ANY new workout plan (Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I claim to be. Always consult your regular physician before starting a new workout routine or altering your normal daily activities.)
Weight training was shown to be a successful replacement for drugs in the first study we discussed, however there aren’t reliable studies proving it directly releases dopamine in the brain to replace the dopamine surge we garnered from our previous addiction.
Despite this lack of scientific support I don’t think that anyone would argue that starting a realistic weight training routine based on your ability and physical limitations will go a far way of combating cravings and helping you work through, and eventually, ignore triggers.
What I suggest to newcomers–who, of course have been giving the clearance by their doctor to lift weights—is to do so during the time of day they feel the most vulnerable of relapse. Meaning if you typically started using substances, people, places, or things to alter your mood or surroundings at 5 pm every day after work then that’s the time you should be hitting the weights.
NOTE: If you can’t afford a gym membership or don’t have access to weights, you can use a set of affordable exercise bands, or heck, even use bodyweight exercises such as air squats, pushups, planks, lunges, etc.
Contact Substance For You's personal trainer (me) Marv@OneRepAtATime.net for furthering your exercise goals, too!
Weight training has done wonders for me, especially in my early recovery when old triggers arose or I felt angry at something or someone during the course of my day. It allowed me to work through that frustration in a healthy manner, and take the power out of the resentment; and trust me, in my early recovery there were a lot of these sessions. It should be noted that I didn’t return to lifting weights until I was about 8 months sober, and even then, I was still dealing with triggers more often than not.
Again, all we are looking to do is find something positive to combat our cravings and help us work through and ultimately ignore old triggers. Go for a walk, lift some weights, do some yoga or pilates. Or simply put, just do "something" other than using, that can seem healthy; in moderation/your own limitations!
I don’t care if all you can manage is slowly walking around your neighborhood, when you feel old cravings arise or triggers trying to get your attention! Get the heck out of your place and get moving! Your sobriety and recovery will thank you, which means that your future self is already thanking you the second you start lacing up those shoes.
Article written by One Rep Marv of OneRepataTime.net who's SFY (the owner here) personal trainer! Give him a holler for anything on fitness or recovery and tell him that SFY sent ya his way!
Marv has been clean, serene, and sober since 6/22/13 and earned a degree of Bachelor's of Science in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Exercise Science from Sonoma State University!
¹Roessler, K. Exercise treatment for drug abuse–a Danish pilot study. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health. 2010 Aug: 38(6):664-9
²Glimcher, PW. Understanding dopamine and reinforcement learning: the dopamine reward prediction error hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2011 Sep³Fuss, J. et al. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2015 Oct.