The benefit of physical activity on someone’s health cannot be understated. However, these benefits extend beyond preventing obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Over the past couple of years, medical researchers have found a significant link between exercising and addiction recovery. According to these researchers, exercise is greatly beneficial to patients who have a substance use disorder (SUD) — proving that physical activity can keep both heart disease and addictive behaviors at bay.
As addiction rates steadily increase in the United States, these studies are met with much relief. Using exercise as a form of addiction therapy complements sit-down talk therapy. When both are used together, they often bring about the best results.
The Structure of the Addicted Brain
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the brain is the most complex organ in the entire body. How it works is very mechanical.
“The brain is often likened to an incredibly complex and intricate computer. Instead of electrical circuits on the silicon chips that control our electronic devices, the brain consists of billions of cells, called neurons, which are organized into circuits and networks.
“Each neuron acts as a switch controlling the flow of information. If a neuron receives enough signals from other neurons that it is connected to, it fires, sending its own signal on to other neurons in the circuit.”
These signals result in normal brain functions such as talking, walking, self-control and almost every emotion. However, when your brain is on drugs, it changes the way your brain operates.
“Drugs interfere with the way neurons send, receive and process signals via neurotransmitters. Some drugs, such as marijuana and heroin, can activate neurons because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter in the body. This allows the drugs to attach onto and activate the neurons. Although these drugs mimic the brain’s own chemicals, they don’t activate neurons in the same way as a natural neurotransmitter, and they lead to abnormal messages being sent through the network.
“Other drugs, such as amphetamine or cocaine, can cause the neurons to release abnormally large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or prevent the normal recycling of these brain chemicals by interfering with transporters. This too amplifies or disrupts the normal communication between neurons.”
Often, the result of drug use can change brain chemistry when it becomes dependent on a certain substance. Addiction affects nearly every part of the brain’s function, displaying increased effects in some areas.
Areas Most Affected by Drug Abuse
The area’s most at risk when someone is abusing drugs or alcohol are the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
Basal Ganglia: This part of the brain can influence motivation as well as other pleasurable brain activities. The basal ganglia is responsible for our enjoyment of sex, socializing and eating. It motivates in conducting these pleasurable activities. It is also responsible for helping a person set a routine or habit. Ultimately, it is known as the “pleasure circuit.”
According to the NIDA, “Drugs over-activate this circuit, producing the euphoria of the drug high. But with repeated exposure, the circuit adapts to the presence of the drug, diminishing its sensitivity and making it hard to feel pleasure from anything besides the drug.”
Extended Amygdala: This part of the brain is noted for its role in making us feel uneasy, stressed or anxious. When someone is going through withdrawal, this part of the brain can go into overdrive.
“This circuit becomes increasingly sensitive with increased drug use. Over time, a person with substance use disorder uses drugs to get temporary relief from this discomfort rather than to get high.”
Unfortunately, this leads to the user wanting to seek out drugs more and more often.
Prefrontal Cortex: Known as the problem-solving part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex allows someone to think critically and make good decisions.
“Shifting balance between this circuit and the circuits of the basal ganglia and extended amygdala make a person with a substance use disorder seek the drug compulsively with reduced impulse control.”
This is also the last part of the brain to fully mature.
Rewiring the Brain
The process of rewiring the brain takes time, effort and consistency. It is not a very pleasant experience and will require great diligence, but it can be done. But research has seen promising results. According to research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, a psychiatric medical journal, these findings can add to the process of recovery.
“Physical exercise has been proposed as a complementary therapy for individuals with SUD undergoing treatment at different stages of addiction rehabilitation.”
In this study, the application of physical activity in therapy is presented in the form of a psychobiological model. In other words, while studying the subjects exercising, they considered the cognitive and physiological cues of every subject. They monitored the subject’s perceived exertion and self-talk, as well as their temperature and cardiovascular states while they jogged. Noting every detail as the study moved forward, they sought to determine whether the link even exists. They found something astonishing. As a result of this study, they recorded an active improvement in the part of the brain that controls addictive behaviors.
“. . . in the same way that physical exercise is advised for treating other diseases, the neuroplasticity promoted by aerobic exercise may indicate its usefulness as a potential additional treatment for individuals with SUD. Specifically, these benefits may be seen in brain areas related to executive control, such as those areas involved in inhibition of drug-seeking behavior and impulsivity, as well as in decision-making regarding drug consumption.”
To the benefit of those medical providers fighting drug misuse, as well as those with an addiction, the use of exercise along with talk therapy has many hoping for a better future. Most people can agree that running for an hour a day is far better than being caught in an addiction. Coupling talk therapy with aerobic activity may provide the key to a lasting recovery. Overall, the findings change the way addiction and substance use disorder is viewed in the medical field. The question is how to apply this to real life.
Managing Addiction with A Running Program
In a separate study found in the journal of Substances Abuse: Research and Treatment, researchers decided to implement a running program for subjects with addictions. They monitored to see how well the subjects would progress in their recovery while running an average of 60 minutes every week for three-and-a-half months. At the end of the last week, the subjects had the choice to run a final race. The results proved substantial.
“The purpose of this study was to explore the perceptions of participants in a supervised group exercise program for people with SUD. This program was 14 weeks in length and 61 (30 females, 31 males) out of 109 participants ultimately chose to participate in, and completed, the race at the close of the program.”
These findings indicate that when exercising was involved with therapy, subjects were much more likely to stick with the addiction recovery program. Further analysis showed more findings from this program.
“After analyzing interview data about participants’ perceptions of participating in the walking/running training program on their recovery, the researchers identified three main themes: (1) pushed forward recovery through running, (2) gained a sense of accomplishment by crossing the finish line, and (3) experienced a sense of belonging in the program. Findings suggested that participation of walking/running seemed to be beneficial for improving recovery experiences in this population.”
These themes prove to be key in any addiction recovery program. Although the research is new, the concepts of these studies are already being used today. In an effort to make these findings apply to the average person struggling with addiction, a gym and medical institute teamed up to try to solve Oregon’s drug problems.
Gym Offering Recovery Through Exercise
For those who have an addiction, they know the isolation that comes with the recovery process. Having a support system available is always needed if an individual seeks to recover fully. Fortunately, there are establishments that exist to support individuals in exercising and addiction recovery.
In Portland, Oregon, the National Institutes of Health and Science Research Consortium provide The Recovery Gym. This project, led by its founder Brent Canode, provides those recovering from substance misuse and mental illness a place for exercising and addiction recovery.
“(What) we want is someone to come in and feel understood, to feel like they belong,” Canode says. “We have contracts with five different treatment centers, we actually go pick clients up while they’re in in-patient treatment and start to develop those kinds of healthy habits. And then they’re allowed to come free of charge once they leave treatment.”
Each day in this gym, many once heavy-drug users gather to break a sweat. They do so out of dedication to their recovery and to support others along the way.
This gym, along with many other addiction support resources, offers a chance for those in recovery to stay sober. Along with this, empathy and compassion in the field of substance misuse are being seen as never before.
Addiction medical providers and researchers continue to discover more about the nature of substance use disorder. Although many areas of the brain are negatively affected by drug abuse, there is a way to train the brain into being what it was before addiction. Exercising during addiction recovery provides new hope for those not finding success in their recovery.
Applying an aerobic=exercise routine to therapy and other recovery services aids in rewiring the brain by improving self-control and other executive functions. This rewiring may take a lot of time and exercise of self-control. Still, there is hope for those who need an extra boost. Physical activity can also provide those in recovery with a sense of togetherness in developing a support network.
The use of this information is already being seen in recovery centers across the country. Treatment programs, services and other resources are currently being made to better serve every patient.