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5 Ways Exercise Can Help You Avoid Alcohol Relapse

An estimated 17.6 million Americans meet the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence annually, and as many as 18% of the population will be affected by alcohol use disorders at some point in their lives.

While many people dealing with alcohol-related issues will seek the help of a substance abuse treatment center, relapse still remains a problem. Some experts say the relapse rate for alcohol addiction in the four years following treatment ranges is up to 90%.

This is where exercise can help.

Exercise has been shown to help with alcohol addiction problems and can even serve as a relapse prevention strategy.

While a wide range of evidence exists which points to the physical and psychological benefits of exercise, in recent years experts have begun to explore the potential of exercise as an addiction treatment and it has been shown to help with a number of things.

1. Provide Pleasure Without Alcohol

Oftentimes, substance abuse and drinking will first begin as a pleasurable thing to do. Many people will use alcohol to experience the “high” the substance creates, and eventually this can turn into addiction. However, exercise has also shown to provide pleasurable experiences which can serve as a positive-reinforcing alternative. Studies have shown heavy alcohol users experience their own separate “high” when exercising. This can effectively work to replace the excessive alcohol use one used to rely on to provide pleasure.

2. Reduce Depressive Symptoms and Improve Mood

The relationship between addiction and mental disorders like depression can be complicated. There is evidence that those with depressive symptoms will likely deal with poor results when it comes to recovery for alcohol dependence. That said, exercise has been shown to have a positive impact on depressive symptoms and can help improve overall mood. Exercise, especially when used in a clinical treatment setting, can help clients overcome depressive symptoms and anxiety which can, in turn, improve their chances at successful recovery.

3. Serve as a Positive Coping Mechanism

Alcohol use often becomes a problem when people use it as a coping mechanism. People may drink to help them escape and deal with other parts of life. As it continues, people will build a tolerance and an addiction to alcohol. Exercise has shown to be an alternative, positive coping mechanism clients can use in place of alcohol. Exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, has also been shown to help reduce psychosocial stress and can decrease the likelihood a patient will feel to drink in order to cope with this stress.

4. Decreased Urges to Drink

One of the primary reasons people will relapse to alcohol is due to the cravings they feel to drink again. While urges can be dangerous for those in recovery, when they do come up, they don’t last long. Being able to distract yourself during these moments can help you overcome them and continue on with your sobriety. Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to help provide short-term relief from urges to drink again, effectively reducing a person’s chance at relapsing.

5. Provide a Positive Alternative to Drinking

When people fall victim to alcohol addiction, their life tends to revolve around their disease. During addiction treatment, clinicians will work to unveil rewarding and enjoyable social activities they can do which don’t involve drinking or using drugs. Exercise is one such activity. When a person leaves an alcohol addiction treatment center, they will often find themselves with a lot of time on their hands. This unspent time can lead to negative thoughts, urges to use, and, eventually relapse. Utilizing exercise and committing to physical activity during this time can do wonders for a person’s physical and mental health and provide the structure needed to commit to long-term sobriety.

Whether you are practicing yoga, going for a run, lifting weights, or even going on a short walk – exercise can provide numerous benefits for those dealing with substance abuse problems, and alcoholism specifically.

Physical and Mental Benefits of Exercise

Along with addiction-specific benefits, exercise can improve various aspects of a person’s physical and mental health.

Some of the biggest ways exercise can improve your body physically include:

  • Weight regulation
  • Improved cardiovascular health, reducing risk of heart attack
  • Improve bone strength
  • Lower risk of falls
  • Reduced risk of cancer

While these physical benefits may seem obvious, mental health improvements are something often overlooked when it comes to exercise.

Often, people dealing with substance abuse problems will struggle with co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. These problems can influence their addiction and make the problem worse.

In order to properly treat the addiction problem, clients will also need to address their mental health disorders and addiction simultaneously by going through a dual diagnosis treatment program. Exercise can be one major component of this type of treatment as it has been shown to:

  • Relieve stress
  • Improve mood
  • Reduce depression
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve self-esteem and more

These can all improve a person’s overall mental health and well-being and can provide major benefits for those in addiction recovery.

Real-World Example of Exercise for Addiction

Addiction treatment centers across the globe have recognized the influence exercise can have on a person’s sobriety and have begun to implement exercise initiatives in their own treatment programs.

One rehab in Arizona, The Hope House, recently entered into a 5-year partnership with Arizona State University to bring additional exercise and mindfulness programs to its clients.

As clients at The Hope House work to overcome alcoholism and opioid addiction with traditional forms of treatment, clinicians will also guide them through exercise routines to find healthy alternatives to substance use and improve physical and mental health outlooks.

While exercise has obvious physical and mental benefits which can aid almost anyone, it can be especially beneficial for individuals dealing with substance abuse problems.

About the Author

Joe Gilmore works for The Hope House, a luxury addiction rehab in Scottsdale, Arizona dedicated to providing the highest quality of care to its clients.


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