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The Benefits Of Exercise In Addiction Recovery

Posted by Martin Preston
on 15 Apr 2022

Woman doing yoga in sunrise rural setting

It boosts mood, protects against illness and improves sleep. Physical activity has long been associated with health and well-being and the benefits of exercise in addiction recovery are well documented. Studies reveal that regular aerobic exercise can prevent illicit drug use and alcohol abuse while also increasing the rate of abstinence, reducing cravings and lowering the likelihood of relapse (1).  

Each year, 2.5 million people die from alcohol abuse and at least 15.3 million have substance use disorders. Traditional treatment methods often rely on drug replacement therapy. For instance, methadone may be prescribed to wean people off heroin. However, as opioids, these solutions can be addictive in themselves. Physical activity presents an affordable and accessible alternative that is proven to help recovery (2).  

Delamere wellness retreat in Cheshire is one healthcare provider that champions holistic therapy. This involves using exercise and other complementary therapies to treat the whole person, rather than just their symptoms. Our forest surroundings provide a natural environment for restorative walks, and we also have an onsite gym and personal trainer to support people as they grow beyond addiction. Here are some of the reasons we believe exercise is a crucial part of a successful recovery. 

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The 5 benefits of exercise in addiction recovery 

Exercise produces protective effects during the different transitional phases that occur when someone is recovering from alcohol addiction or substance use disorder. Experts believe this could be due to similarities in how exercise affects the brain. Physical activity increases euphoria and well-being in the same way as taking drugs or drinking alcohol because it works on our pleasure and reward system, releasing the same feel-good chemicals (1). Exercise can also help to reduce withdrawal symptoms, replace triggers and boost self-esteem. Here are some of the other benefits of exercise in addiction recovery: 

1. Relieving stress and improving focus 

Stress is one of the leading causes of alcohol and drug addiction. Any form of aerobic exercise increases endorphins which helps you to feel good, inside and out. Physical activity gets your heart pumping, muscles moving and energy soaring, helping to reduce the negative effects stress puts on the body. It also provides an escape from focusing on harmful thoughts and physically removes you from environments that may trigger a relapse. 

2. Improving the quality and quantity of sleep 

Drug and alcohol addiction and sleep disorders go hand in hand. Many people turn to drink and drugs to help them sleep, but the high levels of dopamine released can interrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle making it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Unfortunately, during the withdrawal process people also find their sleep quality is affected. Moderate to vigorous exercise increases the amount of deep sleep you get, allowing the mind and body the time it needs to heal and recover. People who engage in as little as 30 minutes of exercise can see a benefit to sleep quality that same night.  

3. Supporting mental health and emotional well-being 

When someone stops taking drugs or drinking alcohol the body has to make a wide range of adjustments. As mind altering substances, it’s no surprise that withdrawing from alcohol and drugs can bring about challenging mood swings, including feelings of anxiety and depression. Physical exercise provides a natural high that helps to replace the effects of substance abuse, lifting your mood, improving self-esteem and making you feel more capable of dealing with recovery. A recent study found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for one hour reduces the risk of major depression (3).  

4. Reducing the risk of chronic disease 

Long-term drug addiction and alcohol addiction both take their toll on the human body. They slowly destroy vital cells and systems leaving lifelong effects. This includes weakening the immune system and leaving it open to illness and disease. Strong evidence suggests physical activity reduces the risk of a large number of conditions. Moderate-to-vigorous exercise was found to lower the risk of breast, bladder, lung and colon cancer, as well as reducing the risk of any existing conditions getting worse over time, improving overall quality of life and physical function (4).  

5. Preventing cravings and relapse

Adjunctive treatments such as mindfulness, wellness and exercise have proven to be successful when used in combination with traditional psychotherapies, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). Exercise training can help to reduce cravings and focus the mind to prevent a return to destructive addictive behaviour. In a trial involving young people at an addiction treatment clinic, those who enjoyed exercise were found to have improved self-esteem and perceived physical health, as well as a greater confidence to resist drugs and alcohol (5).  

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How can exercise at Delamere help your recovery? 

At Delamere, we take a person-centered approach to treating alcohol addiction, drug addiction and other addictions at our purpose-built retreat in Cheshire. Our residential rehab programmes use a combination of traditional treatments, such as one-to-one counselling and group therapy sessions, along with an extensive range of complementary therapies.  

Our holistic therapists are firm believers in the power of exercise in recovery and, as well as personal training in our onsite gym, we offer our guests the chance to take part in dance, yoga and other exercise classes, as well as enjoying mindful walks in six acres of beautifully landscaped grounds. We also practice what we preach: Five of our colleagues recently ran the Manchester Marathon and have raised £2,000 for Manchester Mind.    

Our aim is to pinpoint the cause of your addiction and develop coping mechanisms that will support you in life beyond addiction. We believe in treating all aspects of a person’s emotional, physical and psychological self and will help to restore both your mind and body, leaving you stronger than ever and capable of remaining in active recovery. 


1. Smith, M. A., & Lynch, W. J. (2012). Exercise as a potential treatment for drug abuse: evidence from preclinical studies. Frontiers in psychiatry, 2, 82. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00082.  

2. Wang, D., Wang, Y., Wang, Y., Li, R., & Zhou, C. (2014). Impact of physical exercise on substance use disorders: a meta-analysis. PloS one, 9(10), e110728. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0110728.  

3. Karmel W. Choi, Chia-Yen Chen, Murray B. Stein, Yann C. Klimentidis, Min-Jung Wang, Karestan C. Koenen, Jordan W. Smoller. Assessment of Bidirectional Relationships Between Physical Activity and Depression Among Adults. JAMA Psychiatry, 2019; DOI: 10.1001.  

4. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018.  

5. Bonnie Furzer et. al. Exercise is medicine… when you enjoy it: Exercise enjoyment, relapse prevention efficacy, and health outcomes for youth within a drug and alcohol treatment service, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 52, 2021, 101800, ISSN 1469.  

About the author: Martin Preston

Martin created Delamere in order to provide exemplary care in first class facilities. Find out more about Martin on our team page.

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