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How Exercise Can Help Your Recovery

Written By
Matt Gonzales
This page features
14 Cited Research Articles

Physical activity has numerous health benefits for people recovering from a substance use disorder. Regular exercise can reduce stress, increase self-confidence and improve mental health. However, excessive exercise can compromise health and potentially lead to an eating disorder.

Exercise is one of the best ways to improve your physical and mental health during recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. In addition to strengthening your muscles and bones, it can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke. It can also decrease the chances of developing Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and certain cancers.

While rehab is effective, it does not guarantee sobriety. People in recovery deal with a variety of stressors that can result in drug or alcohol use, including triggers and cravings. In fact, many people who complete treatment experience relapse.

But physical activity can assist people striving to maintain sobriety. A 2011 report published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that exercise can help reduce self-administered use of drugs such as cocaine, nicotine, methamphetamine and alcohol.

Whether it involves walking around the neighborhood, running through a park or playing recreational sports at a nearby gym, exercise can provide physical and mental relief to those battling stress in recovery.

Four Ways Exercise Helps People in Recovery

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, exercise addresses our physiological and psychosocial needs. And because of the resulting benefits, more rehab centers have incorporated physical activities such as yoga into their treatment plans.

It Reduces Stress

Exercise alters the part of the brain that controls anxiety and stress. It has shown to reduce stress and assist individuals in becoming more aware of their mental state. Both low-intensity and high-intensity workouts can provide mental relief.

Physical activity allows people to concentrate on body movements rather than stressors. During exercise, the brain produces endorphins that reduce pain. A number of exercises, including meditation, can produce these natural chemicals that alleviate pain.

It Improves Mental Health

Regular exercise can allow individuals to maintain sharp thinking, learning and judgment skills as they grow older. Research has indicated that routine physical activity can help reduce the risk for depression, a mental health disorder that commonly co-occurs with addiction.

Engaging in a combination of muscle-strengthening activities and aerobics three to five times per week for 30 to 60 minutes can help people achieve these mental health benefits, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It Prevents Weight Gain

Unhealthy weight is linked to substance use. People in recovery can exercise to maintain or achieve a healthy weight. According to the CDC, combining routine exercise with a healthy diet can help people control their weight.

More than 80 percent of people with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are overweight or obese, according to a 2013 report by the National Institute of Mental Health. Severe mental health disorders are closely associated with addiction.

It Helps You Sleep

Poor sleep quality can cause fatigue, a health symptom that can lead to relapse. Routine exercise can improve sleep quality by stimulating recuperative processes that restore health or strength during sleep.

A 2011 study published in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity indicated that engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week can improve sleep quality by up to 65 percent.

Popular Workout Routines

Each day, millions of Americans engage in leisure activities such as running around the block or walking to and from work. But a variety of other exercise activities exist, and each has its own set of health benefits for individuals in recovery.


Hiking through nature, whether in the woods or up a mountain, can improve mental health. The activity can help individuals in recovery improve their self-esteem, establishing emotional growth and feelings of accomplishment.


Swimming can be a relaxing activity that eases tension in the muscles and joints. The cool and gentle water can reduce soreness and aches associated with withdrawal symptoms.

Team Sports

Team sports include basketball, tennis, soccer, volleyball and table tennis. In addition to the physical and mental benefits of physical activity, participating in sports can help people in recovery establish healthy relationships.


Yoga has numerous health benefits. The activity has been found to reduce stress, decrease pain and improve self-awareness. Research has shown that yoga can also reduce cravings in people recovering from addiction.


CrossFit is a high-intensity fitness program that combines various exercises, team communication and a healthy nutrition program. Around the United States, people in recovery have used CrossFit to improve their confidence, self-respect and happiness.

Additional exercise activities that could produce health benefits include weightlifting, rock climbing, surfing, boxing, biking, snowboarding and martial arts.

People in recovery should combine exercise with aftercare services such as counseling or 12-step meetings. These evidence-based approaches to recovery can teach people sobriety tips, techniques for dealing with triggers and ways to avoid relapse.

Dangers of Excessive Exercise

While exercise can be an effective component of addiction recovery, it is important not to engage in too much physical activity. Excessive exercise can result in injuries or exercise addiction, a disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness.

Signs of exercise addiction include:

A 2017 study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that excessive exercise could harm the heart. In the report, researchers examined the relationship between coronary artery calcification and physical activity among young and middle-aged men.

The results showed that people who exercised three times more than the recommended amount for physical activity had a 27 percent increased risk of developing coronary artery calcification over the study period. White men were most likely to have high coronary artery calcification levels. The national guidelines used in the study suggested 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week.

Excessive exercise is associated with numerous eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. However, routine physical activity that is not harmful to one’s health remains an effective method for reducing the risk for chronic diseases, sustaining sobriety and improving overall health.

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