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Drug Addiction

Evidence Shows Exercise Can Help Treat Addiction

Research studies and anecdotal reports support the benefits of physical activity in treating substance use disorders

New Port Richley – Numerous studies have indicated that exercise-based interventions show promise in treating drug addiction and dependency (1, 2), prompting the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to invest more than $4.3 million in research funding (3). Former substance abusers have also attested to the effectiveness of sports and exercise in helping them to overcome addiction and stay drug-free (4, 5, 6).

Researchers from the University of Virginia and Davidson College have published comprehensive reviews of epidemiological, preclinical and clinical studies that explore the use of exercise in treating substance use and abuse (1, 2). While they acknowledge further clinical research is necessary to determine causal effects and identify parameters to maximize the benefits of physical activity (1), they have concluded exercise “may be a useful tool for treating drug addiction,” noting that it has the potential to “prevent drug use initiation through interactions with dopamine in the reward pathway” and “prevent relapse through interactions with glutamate, dopamine and chromatin” (2). New evidence may soon follow, as NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow has committed to supporting “groundbreaking research on the neurobiological, psychological and social processes by which exercise may promote overall well-being and protect against drug abuse and addiction” (3).

Kent Runyon, Vice President of Community Relations and Chief Strategy and Compliance Officer for Novus Medical Detox Center, is encouraged by firsthand accounts from recovering addicts and alcoholics who affirm that sports and exercise have helped them get clean and abstain from further substance abuse. Novus recently published a feature story (novusdetox.com/young-man-gets-life-back-help-soccer) on a formerly homeless drug abuser who completed drug rehab, got involved with Street Soccer USA and credits the community sports organization as “one of the pillars of his recovery” (4).

Others have shared similar success stories based on their experience with organizations such as Phoenix Multisport, a sober support community that sponsors group athletic activities such as hiking, climbing, biking, yoga and strength training (5), and Racing for Recovery, a support group that aims to prevent substance abuse by promoting a lifestyle of fitness and health (6). In addition, a growing number of drug rehab and recovery clinics, such as the Betty Ford Center, include fitness as a mandatory component of their treatment programs (6).

“Physical activity can benefit people with substance use disorders in a variety of ways,” explained Runyon. “Not only does it provide an outlet to relieve boredom, stress, anxiety and anger—which lead many to turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place—but it also releases endorphins, which activate the body’s opiate receptors and can create a natural ‘high.’ Just as importantly, group sports can help those struggling with addiction to form healthier social relationships. Many who relapse do so because their friends are still using. Establishing new friendships with others who are committed to sobriety can greatly improve their chances of a successful, long-term recovery.”

Runyon encourages individuals battling addiction and dependency to complete a detox program, which will help wean them off drugs or alcohol and enable the body to heal from its damaging effects. They can then enroll in drug rehab or a recovery support program, which may include exercise as a part of the treatment or provide referrals to local sports and fitness groups. Ultimately, Runyon sees group athletic activities as an effective way to achieve and maintain a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.

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