Exercise in Recovery: How Can It Help?

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Cutting back or getting sober from alcohol is a challenging process. Finding healthy coping mechanisms to get you through is a key part of the puzzle, and one that can make a world of difference long-term. While there are many new habits and rituals that can help with recovery, one of the strongest options turns out to be one of the simplest: Exercise.

Research shows that regular exercise is good for both your mind and body, and can be especially helpful in recovery. Below, we’ll look at the advantages of exercising after quitting alcohol, and how it may even help with withdrawal symptoms.

Exercise and Your Mental Health

group of women doing yoga indoors
Photo by bruce mars on Unsplash

There’s no question that exercise has a significant positive impact on a person’s mental and emotional health. Getting regular exercise can:

  • Improve your sleep
  • Relieve stress
  • Boost your mood
  • Help you feel more energetic
  • Assist you in maintaining a healthy weight
  • Reduce your cholesterol
  • Increase cardiovascular fitness

Aerobic exercise is also shown to reduce anxiety and depression, and increase an individual’s self-esteem. With such clear benefits for people who aren’t in recovery, it’s not surprising that exercise can make an especially big difference for people who are giving up drugs or alcohol.

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Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

Many studies have shown the benefits of exercise in recovery from alcohol or drug misuse. In fact, the two appear to have an inverse relationship: People who exercise appear to misuse drugs and alcohol less, while people who abuse substances seem to get less exercise.

There are several hypotheses for why this might occur:

  1. Exercise may lead to a decrease in substance abuse because it provides people with alternatives to using drugs and alcohol. It might also influence an individual’s susceptibility to developing a substance use disorder.
  2. Substance use disorders might cause a decrease in exercise by reducing aerobic capability, or by reducing the amount of time a person has to dedicate to exercise(. It’s very common for people suffering from substance use disorders to spend almost all of their time using and obtaining drugs, which cuts down the amount of time they have for healthier activities.
  3. Exercise may also increase euphoria and feelings of well-being, which can feel similar to drug use. When an individual is able to obtain that “high” from healthier activities, it often reduces substance use. This might motivate individuals to exercise instead of drinking alcohol.

In summary, regular exercise seems to be a useful tool for maintaining recovery. It can help replace drinking as a daily habit, improve one’s overall health, and provide a healthier way to boost “feel good” chemicals in the body. Having an appealing way to occupy one’s time and improve one’s mood without alcohol can go a long way to preventing relapse.

Does Exercise Help With Alcohol Withdrawal?

man running down road in the sunlight
Photo by Jenny Hill on Unsplash

The initial week of alcohol detox can be harrowing, especially if you’ve been drinking heavily. Getting mild to moderate exercise can make you feel better both physically and mentally during alcohol withdrawal.

Some physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms might limit your mobility at their peak. But taking even a short walk can give you a welcome distraction, get you some fresh air, and help your body move toxins through your system. And when it comes to psychological symptoms of withdrawal, getting out and moving your body can make a world of difference.

Intense anxiety is a classic symptom of alcohol withdrawal, and exercise is shown to reduce anxiety and improve mood. While there’s no need to run a marathon during withdrawal, regular exercise will likely make you feel better emotionally and psychologically as you quit or cut back on alcohol.

With all that said, you should also speak with a doctor before going through alcohol detox—especially if you expect severe symptoms. A medical professional can tell you how much exercise, and what type, will be best for your body during withdrawal.

Exercise and Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)

After the initial week or two of detox, many people continue to experience more long-term withdrawal symptoms. This is called post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), and generally includes more mood-related symptoms—including depression, anxiety, insomnia, apathy, and difficulty concentrating.

Exercise can be especially helpful during this stage of recovery, and can play a role in helping your body and mind heal themselves long-term. On top of the demonstrated benefits of exercise on mood, establishing new rituals and activities (like running or hitting the gym) can distract you from PAWS symptoms and help you move forward to a new chapter.

Developing a Healthy Exercise Routine in Recovery

Recovery from alcohol addiction can be hard—especially in the beginning. It’s crucial to replace drug and alcohol use with healthier alternatives. Exercise is one excellent option for establishing new habits in recovery.

Of course, any habit to excess—even healthy ones—can be detrimental. If you’re not accustomed to exercising, start gradually and build your way up. Be intentional with your exercise routine and come up with a plan that’s good for your body and mind. If you have the financial resources, it might even be a good idea to speak with a personal trainer who can help you develop a regular routine that’s good for you, personally.

In summary, if you’re wondering, “can exercise help alcohol withdrawal?” the answer is a resounding yes. Staying physically and mentally healthy is an excellent way to avoid relapse. So long as you stay aware of your physical limits, regular exercise can make a big difference in long-term recovery.

Read more about establishing new habits in recovery, or learn how online coaching can help you stick with sobriety for the long haul.

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Written By:
Rachael Goldstein
Philadelphia-based freelance writer specializing in law, mental health, psychology, and addiction.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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