The effectiveness of exercise as an addiction recovery aid has been widely researched, but the question is: how? One of the best ways scientists investigate is by studying the brain and how it changes when people work out.
Studying how the brain can change during addiction recovery yields important information about how to retrain brains and prevent relapse. Here’s how physical exercise can help relieve stress, change how the brain works, and ultimately help in addiction recovery.
- Exercise changes the way that your brain responds to stress
Chronic stress can alter pathways in the brain that are responsible for motivation. Stress can alter the emotional and hormonal pathways of the brain and leaves people vulnerable to addiction and relapse. Stress changes the way that your brain adapts to new circumstances and alters its ability to learn effectively.
Exercise has been proven to help improve mood. Using exercise to reduce stress can help you view yourself differently and create new fitness goals. Exercise gives you confidence. Self-confidence comes from being capable of managing your personal stress and making progress toward your fitness goals. Exercise can alter your brain from a molecular level on up and help you become a stronger person.
- Working out alters your body’s internal reward system
The human body has reward systems that help us create habits and engage in beneficial behavior. However, addiction fundamentally changes the reward systems that are built into the body, which is how they create a high.
On the plus side, aerobic exercise can improve your body’s ability to work with neurotransmitters involved in the reward system and protect against neurological disorders. At a biochemical level, maintaining physical fitness shows its benefits as an addiction recovery tool.
- Aerobic exercise can improve memory
Some drugs are particularly toxic to brain cells, including parts of the brain that are responsible for memory. As a result, some individuals who are going through addiction recovery look for ways to improve their memory and restore cognitive function.
A recent article from Harvard Medical School highlighted research that showed that working out could improve cognitive abilities, aid in sleep, reduce stress and anxiety and even promote memory. The best part? The exercise can be as simple as walking. All of these benefits are in addition to the ability of exercise to reduce blood pressure, reduce the risk of diabetes, and prevent depression.
- A solid workout can help you grow new brain cells and improve learning
As previously mentioned, some drugs are toxic to brain cells. They can kill them off and shrink parts of the brain, like the frontal lobe, that play an important role in executive function and cognition. According to Science Daily, research consistently demonstrates that aerobic exercises that get your heart pumping are beneficial for growing new neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays an important role in managing emotion and learning.
- Exercise can reduce cravings
Function magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technique that is used to look at how blood flow in the brain changes and activates different neurons or regions of the brain. Using fMRI, scientists showed that mindfulness-based treatments are effective at changing the way that cravings occur by altering the brain’s response to triggers or cues.
Some exercises, especially yoga, pair perfectly with mindfulness techniques, so using these kinds of exercises as tools to help prevent relapse can be particularly effective for individuals on the path to recovery.
As you exercise and continue on your journey of addiction recovery, remember that during the early stages it’s more important to focus on working out instead of pushing yourself. Remember there is a relationship between physical and mental fitness, so don’t neglect building psychological fitness as well.
Therapy pairs well with self-improvement efforts, and research highlights how it can produce some of the same changes in the brain. Doing some personal experimentation with different workouts and recovery techniques will help you build a routine that is stable and long-lasting. Stay open, keep persevering and keep exercising.
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