Decoded: How Exercise Helps Fight Addictions

Emerging evidence has found a positive correlation between physical exercise and a lower incidence of relapse.

You know it’s killing you. With every glass and with every puff, you’re cutting your life short by many years.

Out of the many battles we fight, addiction is perhaps the most challenging. There’s guilt, helplessness, dependence, escape, and imprisonment — all at once.

But getting out of this web is possible. While medication, therapy, and rehabilitation are well-recognized options, a lesser-known process is now coming up as an effective aid in treating addictions.

How Addiction Works

Dr. Shamsah Sonawalla, the Consultant Psychiatrist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, explains that addiction activates the reward pathway of the brain by triggering neurotransmitters that instill pleasure and gratification.

“There’s an upsurge of happy neurochemicals in certain areas of the brain. So you want more and more of the substance, and then the brain gets conditioned and dependent on it. It becomes a habit, and there seems to be no other way to obtain this pleasure.”

Dr. Shamsah Sonawalla

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), this substance abuse can lead to a ‘dependence syndrome’. “A cluster of behavioral, cognitive and physiological phenomena that develop after repeated substance use and that typically include a strong desire to take the drug, difficulties in controlling its use, persisting in its use despite harmful consequences, a higher priority is given to drug use than to other activities and obligations, increased tolerance, and sometimes a physical withdrawal state.”

Where Does Exercise Factor In?

Emerging evidence has found a positive correlation between physical exercise and a lower incidence of relapse.

For instance, a recent study has found that exercise can help beat cocaine addiction. The research scientist and study co-author were quoted as saying, “Our results suggest that regular aerobic exercise could be a useful strategy for relapse prevention, as part of a comprehensive treatment program for recovering cocaine abusers. Further research is necessary to see if these results also hold true for other addictive drugs.”

But what explains this link? Dr. Santosh Bangar, Consultant Psychiatrist, Global Hospital, Mumbai, tells us that there are several ways in which exercise helps.

“On a basic level, it gives structure to the day. Once you have a routine, it is easy to distract yourself from craving for alcohol or smoking. The science of it can be explained by the release of positive hormones like endorphins during exercise, which leads to a positive effect on our general well-being.”

Dr. Santosh Bangar

Dr. Shamsah explains a similar logic. “Fortunately, the very chemicals which increase when the substance you’re addicted to are consumed, are also going to increase when you exercise. Our bodies are wired to be physically active.”

“Many people who are addicted are also dealing with other things. There could be underlying issues such as depression or anxiety. Exercise is a proven treatment for depression, so it tends to treat two things at once — the addiction, and whatever is beneath it. This way, it reduces cravings and risk of relapse.”

Dr. Shamsah Sonawalla

However, both doctors believe that the course of treatment will depend on the severity of the addiction. If it’s mild and just about a single substance, a proper exercise program — preferably a group activity — can help a lot. “Cardio and yoga seem to work well. A group can make it better by adding a social aspect and accountability. There are more chances for continuity and compliance.”

More serious cases, she explains, would require a proper detox procedure, and along the way, exercise can be added as a powerful tool to combat addiction.

Dr. Santosh adds,

“It is a holistic approach. A combination of medication, psychological therapy like counseling, talking therapy, social interventions, meditation, and exercise can all be done by a person under supervised guidance.”

Dr. Santosh Bangar

A self-help group can also be opted for, he advises.