How Exercise Can Help You Beat an Addiction

4 Ways a Fitness Routine Can Help You Beat Addiction

How Exercise Can Help You Beat an Addiction

  • Taking care of your physical health can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • No matter your current experience level, you can create a routine that fits your daily habits and recovery needs.
  • Exercise reduces cravings, adds structure, improves mental health, and provides community.

Source: Photo by dusan jovic on Unsplash

There’s a reason many rehab centers take a whole-person approach to addiction recovery: Your physical, mental, and emotional health all play a key role in beating addiction.

If you address the mental and emotional side of recovery but ignore your physical health, you’re doing yourself a great disservice.

This raises an important question: Can a fitness routine help you beat addiction?

I sat down with Shiela Camp from Addiction Resource, an online informational content guide serving individuals and their families who struggle with addiction, substance use disorders, and mental health disorders. Here's what she had to say:

Fitness and nutrition affect your mental health in many different ways. Taking care of your physical health can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, relieve stress, improve your sleep, and much more.

Poor exercise habits can be one of the early signs of mental health disorders, including addiction. But if exercise doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry. Anyone can get active, even at very moderate levels.

How fitness helps when overcoming addiction

No matter your current experience level with exercise, you can create a fitness routine that fits your daily habits and recovery needs. Here are a few ways a routine can help you to beat addiction:

1. Exercise reduces cravings. A report from Harvard Medical School suggests that one of the most effective ways that a fitness routine can help people overcome addiction is by being a distraction from cravings.

If you’ve struggled with substances before, you know that cravings can be overpowering. They take over a person’s thoughts until that desire is fulfilled.

But exercise has been proven to reduce these cravings and lead to long-term abstinence.

2. Fitness routines add structure. When you’re trying to beat an addiction, you need structure and healthy outlets. Incorporating new routines can be very effective in the fight. Factors boredom, depression, lack of purpose, and too much free time can all contribute to drug or alcohol use.

With a fitness routine, you’ve got something to look forward to each day. Instead of having unfettered free time, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing every day, giving your brain a chance to create new hard-wired patterns.

3. Your mental health will improve. Exercise also reduces symptoms caused by mental disorders, including depression and anxiety. For many, addiction is a battle with substances and their minds. Mental illness is quite often a major contributor to addiction issues, as each disorder negatively impacts the other.

Exercise can improve mental health by:

  • Boosting your mood
  • Improving self-efficacy and confidence
  • Treating symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Enhancing self-awareness

In one study, people who exercised were shown to have 1.5 fewer days of poor mental health monthly (a 43.2% reduction). And for people who had previously been diagnosed with depression, the reduction was even greater. When you take care of your body, your mind benefits as well.

4. Exercise provides community. No one can overcome addiction alone. It often takes a community of friends, family members, and other recovering peers. And for many people, exercise can be a great time for community building.

Especially if you’re working out with other people recovering from addiction, you can create healthy bonds over a shared experience together. You can do this by participating in group exercise classes and groups, :

  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Rock climbing
  • Zumba
  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Hiking

Creating your fitness routine

If you want to beat addiction, start taking care of your body with proper nutrition and exercise. Start slowly by going on walks, short hikes, or swimming in your community pool.

If you’re more experienced, try creating a set schedule for yourself and stick to it, increasing the intensity and frequency of exercise over time.

As you improve your physical health, you’ll be strengthened to beat your addiction.

Are you or someone you love struggling with addiction? These posts could help:

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The Importance of Fitness for Recovering Addicts

How Exercise Can Help You Beat an Addiction

There’s a reason they call it addiction recovery: your body, mind, and spirit all have major healing to do. And while you shouldn’t rush into any marathons, starting some kind of fitness routine can help keep your sobriety on-track and promote healing both inside and out. Best of all, there are endless options no matter your athleticism or interests that all have amazing benefits.

In this guide, you’ll discover all the ways’ fitness can play an important role in your addiction recovery, as well as which activities can maximize the health benefits. Whether you implement a formal exercise routine or simply find ways to lead a more active life in general, working on your physical health is an important part of the healing process.

**Always consult your physician before diving into a serious exercise regimen, especially if you have any medical conditions in addition to or resulting from your addiction.**

The Benefits of Getting Fit in Your Recovery

It’s no secret: recovery is hard. Even when you’re totally committed, cutting substances your life for good comes with all kinds of stress on both body and mind. Your body has to learn how to function in sobriety, and might even go through painful withdrawal symptoms while you detox.

All the while, your mind is screaming that you need your drug of choice, that you can’t live without it. It can leave anyone to feel frustrated and become overwhelmed at times, which is part of why so many people relapse.

Having a healthy outlet for relieving your stress isn’t just a good idea in addiction recovery; it’s crucial.

Exercise is one of the healthiest, most rewarding forms of stress relief you can get. Whether you take kickboxing lessons or simply go for a walk, you’ll get a mood-lifting boost of endorphins that can almost immediately take the edge off. Exercise relaxes you.

It works the mind-body connection to burn off the frustrated energy you’re constantly building up while in recovery and gives you something healthy to focus on. You won’t be able to instantly get to the root of your addiction or find the right words to make things right with your loved ones, but you can start stretching every day and eating healthier.

It’s important to have tangible goals that can remind you of how strong you truly are and give you the confidence to power on.

No matter what your drug of choice, your body ly has some resulting damage from your substance abuse. Keep in mind that depending on your circumstances, your health issues may require that you don’t over-exert yourself within the first few weeks of sobriety.

Putting too much strain on the body while it’s getting over the shock of detoxification can be dangerous, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.

That said, certain fitness routines might even be able to help you promote your body’s healing.

If you grew sedentary in your height of use, getting outside and walking can improve your flexibility, mobility, and cardiovascular health.

It can lower your blood pressure, improve circulation, and even reduce your risk for diabetes and other chronic diseases.

What may seem small steps toward improved fitness are actually significant, and the results often develop more quickly than you’d expect.

Research has shown that working out may also help reduce addiction-related withdrawal symptoms and lessen cravings.

That’s probably in large part because the endorphins released during exercise are the same ones that were triggered by your drug of choice — it’s the same kind of boost, but in a healthy form.

Exercise can be your outlet when you’re feeling tempted to use (just so long as it doesn’t become an addiction in itself), and though you might not always look forward to it at first, by the end you’ll truly feel better.

The beauty of fitness is that there’s really no “wrong” way to do it. You can try whichever activities or regimens you and change things up at any time. These are a few ideas on what will support your recovery best — and remember, this is a great time to try something new.


Yoga is an excellent way to maximize the benefits of exercise. Not only is it amazing for your body, but it also implements meditation, as well.

Yoga teaches you to focus only on the present moment and current task at hand; being able to let go of your worries and struggles with recovery, even briefly, can be the best medicine for you.

It can help you learn to calm your mind and ease your anxieties, and you may even find that meditation alone can help you overcome moments of temptation. In most areas, you can find classes at every level at local gyms and recreation centers, but there is also an abundance of online guides that can help you get started.


You don’t have to hike a mountain in order for it to be beneficial to your health and recovery, and in fact, simply being outside in nature has therapeutic effects of its own.

Going for a hike through the park or in the woods near your home is a great way to exercise, get some fresh air, feel the warmth of the sun on your skin (and the resulting mood-lifting dose of vitamin D), and gain perspective.

It’s important to remember in recovery that the world is a big place — there’s more out there than just your addiction demons. The world is also an incredibly beautiful place, and it can be easy to lose sight of that when you’re facing so many ugly pieces of your past.

Hiking can be a healthy reminder that there’s so much more to be grateful for in the sober world than there ever was when you were using.


Swimming is an excellent option for those who have physical pain or damage following their substance abuse because it makes your body buoyant. This allows you to exercise without the pressure on your joints and muscles.

Whether you swim laps, participate in water aerobics, or anything in-between, you can work any muscle area at any intensity.

The calming effect of water can be soothing in itself, and may even end up becoming the part of your day you look forward to the most.


Most people love the liberating feeling of busting a move on the dance floor, and it’s a wonderful option for your recovery fitness routine. Dancing can lower stress, improve your mood, get your heart pumping, and increase your energy and flexibility.

If you have the opportunity to try a class, choose something you’ll be excited about going to — even if you’ve never tried that style before. You can create your own dance exercise routine at home, or buddy up with a partner to go dancing in the park.

Whatever your style, dancing gives you an escape from the frustrations of recovery, a hobby to focus on, and healthy fun you can enjoy just about anywhere.

Additional Activities For People With Disabilities, Pregnant Women, and Seniors

It’s important to always consult your doctor when these considerations apply, but there are still many different forms of exercise that can bring benefits without health complications.

Adaptive sports are an excellent choice for people with disabilities, and joining a local rec league is the perfect way to meet new people.

(That’s especially important if most of your friends are still living addicted lives).

Gardening is low-impact, an adaptable exercise that often comes with delicious results — if you choose to grow fruit or vegetables, you’ll have the added health benefit of a more nutritious diet.

If you’re a parent or grandparent, you might discover that you can get plenty of exercise by playing in the backyard with the kids.

Even taking the dog for a walk or to the dog park can get you outside and active, and all the better if you bring a friend and get some social time, too.

If your circumstances are particularly complex, you can work with your physician or a specialist to find an exercise routine that’s right for you. It might take some strategy, but in the end, you’ll find an activity that works your body, relaxes your mind, and gives you something to look forward to.

Incorporating Healthy Habits

Maybe you don’t have the time or finances for any kind of formal fitness routine, or you’re giving your body time to repair itself. It could even be that amid everything else, the idea of coming up with yet another new responsibility feels overwhelming. That’s OK — there are still ways you can work activity and healthy habits into your everyday life!

The first step is to constantly look for opportunities to be more active. Maybe you take the stairs to the third floor instead of the elevator or give up that prime parking spot upfront for one a little further back. Each extra step counts, and they all add up over time. The more you get into the habit of looking for exercise, the easier it will be to find.

You can also start making healthier eating choices to really reinforce that mind-body connection.

Putting more nutritious food in your body can not only lift your energy, but it can also really make you feel better, and in turn, boost your mood.

It can raise your confidence to make the conscious effort to eat healthier; now that you’re healing, you’ve set an important, high standard for yourself to stay on the right track.

The truth is exercise is good for you whether you’re in the midst of attaining lasting sobriety or not, but implementing it into your recovery can make a meaningful difference in the process. Staying clean means caring for your well-being as a whole, and the right fitness routine can help you find the healthy balance of body, mind, and spirit.


Exercise Addiction: Signs, Causes & Treatment

How Exercise Can Help You Beat an Addiction

Attempts at weight loss made by trips to the gym and changes in lifestyle are a regular part of many Americans lives. Numerous people around the world are able to maintain a healthy lifestyle that does not interfere with their personal and professional lives.

However, there are some who develop compulsive rituals of over exercise and fitness obsessions that may create conflict with their everyday responsibilities. When something begins to interfere with daily responsibilities, it is often characterized as an addiction.

What is Compulsive Exercise?

An exercise addiction typically results in an unhealthy obsession with exercise and fitness. Injury and illness usually don’t stop someone with an exercise addiction from getting their workout in for the day.

Similar to other addictions, compulsive behaviors and obsessions are also present in people with an exercise addiction. These compulsions and obsessions include thoughts about fitness, body composition and the physical goals the patient is trying to meet. Compulsive exercise also has a high prevalence in people who have eating disorders.

People who are addicted to exercise work out obsessively, sometimes even ignoring injury, illness or disruptions that the frequency of exercise may cause in someone’s life. Even though someone with an addiction to exercise usually ignores illness or injury, they may neglect other areas of life to exercise, such as:

  • Time devoted to other responsibilities, school or work
  • Marital or family relationships
  • Social life and personal commitments

Signs & Symptoms of Exercise Addiction

Signs and symptoms of an exercise addiction can include:

  • Unhealthy focus on exercise, experiencing cravings for exercise
  • A high from the satisfaction of a workout
  • Tolerance and the need to increase amounts of exercise to get the same “high” or satisfying effect
  • Relationship conflicts because of the obsession with exercise
  • Decreased involvement in other activities
  • A compulsive need to work out even when injured, ill or exhausted

Someone who is addicted to exercise can experience withdrawal symptoms including depression, body aches, headaches and other issues when they go without exercise.

Types of Exercise Addiction

There are two types of exercise addiction: primary exercise addiction and secondary exercise addiction. An exercise obsession develops differently depending on the type of addiction.

1. Primary Exercise Addiction

Primary exercise addiction occurs as a form of behavioral addiction, but people with this type of addiction do not have any other mental conditions other than an obsession with exercise.

Primary exercise addiction is more common in males and usually develops in response to endorphins.  Endorphins from exercise allow the body to produce its “high.

” This endorphin high is what becomes addictive.

2. Secondary Exercise Addiction

Secondary exercise addiction co-occurs with another mental disorder. This type of addiction is commonly seen with people who have eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Secondary exercise addiction is more common in females and generally progresses because of body image issues.

Lack of nutrients from the coexisting eating disorder can lead to injury and illness when combined with the obsessive exercise.

What Causes Exercise Addiction?

Exercise addiction usually begins with someone having a desire to improve their physical fitness. An eating disorder, anorexia or bulimia, or a body image disorder may lead to an unhealthy obsession with exercise.

Exercise releases endorphins and dopamine from the brain, similar to the response during drug use. Exercise addiction is rewarded with the feeling of euphoria through neurotransmitters when exercising.

When someone stops exercising, these happy feelings often disappear.

Exercising more to trigger the chemical release is usually the way someone with an exercising disorder copes with stress and manages symptoms.

Risk Factors for Compulsive Exercise

Certain factors can put a person at a higher risk of compulsive exercise.

 For example, having an addictive personality that seeks highs from substance use or other activities can increase the risk of exercise addiction.

Difficulty dealing with stress or negative emotions may also increase an individual’s risk. Pressure from society to have a perfect body may push someone to exercise compulsively to achieve an unrealistic standard.

Beyond internal struggles, external factors can also play a role in exercise addiction. People in sports — and athletes in general —tend to have a higher risk of exercise addiction.

Exercise Addiction in Athletes

Competitive athletes who develop an obsessive passion and dedication to sports are at a much higher risk of exercise addiction. Compared to the general public or leisure exercisers, exercise addiction rates in sports are significantly higher.

The prevalence of exercise addiction in the general population is about 3%. Current research reveals that competitive athletes and gym-goers are at a much higher risk of developing exercise addiction:

  • Runners: 25%
  • Marathon runners: 50%
  • Triathletes: 52%
  • Endurance athletes: 14.2%
  • Fitness center attendees: 8.2%

Exercise Addiction and Technology

Research shows rates of exercise addiction to be higher among those who use technology to aid in their related sport or exercise program. Fitness technology in the form of various apps, trackers and social media platforms are used frequently by the general population and athletes.

Trackers and other apps can help people log workouts, track accomplishments and connect to online fitness communities.

Problems can arise from this type of technology when a person begins comparing themselves and their goals to others, which can increase stress and pressure and encourage unsafe exercise practices.

Overexertion can lead to injury, burnout and the decreased enjoyment of working out.

Exercise addiction is not listed as a condition in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, when the motivation for exercise addiction is evaluated, it is often present alongside other mental health conditions, such as:

Exercise addiction is also more commonly seen in people who exhibit certain personality traits, such as perfectionism, neuroticism and narcissism.

Exercise addiction can cause a person to become overly anxious about missing a workout session. This fear can cause a person to workout and push themselves to the point of illness and injury. The negative effects of exercise addiction may include:

  • Pain and injury from overuse
  • Social impairment
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart problems
  • Irregular periods with possible reproductive issues
  • Extreme weight loss

Effects of Exercise Addiction

Exercise addiction is associated with several physical and psychological side effects, including:

  • Negative social consequences
  • Anxious psychological functioning
  • Exercising despite medical contraindications
  • Prone to injury
  • Interference with relationships or work

Even though regular exercise strengthens the muscles and bones, too much activity increases the risk of stress fractures and other bone and muscle injuries. People with existing injuries may aggravate their injuries and increase the duration of recovery time. Some examples of injuries caused by excessive exercise include:

  • Joint damage
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Sprained ligaments
  • Strained or torn muscles or tendons

Exercise addiction may also cause a menstrual disturbance in women. Because of an unhealthy body mass with over-exercise, a female body may stop releasing eggs and the woman will miss one or more periods. This is more common in females who have secondary exercise addiction accompanied by an eating disorder.

Exercise Addiction Statistics

Statistics show that exercise addiction impacts approximately 3 percent of the general population.  Athletes are affected at a much higher rate. Exercise addiction affects around 3% of regular gym-goers. When it comes to runners, some research suggests 25% qualify as exercise addicted, with the prevalence doubling to 50% in marathon runners.

Statistics on Exercise Addiction Treatment

Treatment for exercise addiction includes regulating the intensity and frequency of exercise and promoting healthy coping strategies. The goal of treatment is to improve social relationships, job maintenance and overall health.

The main challenge in treating exercise addiction involves follow through, with studies showing a low compliance rate. There are limited studies testing therapeutic and medical interventions for exercise addiction.

People will ly have the most success with specialists in behavioral therapy and addictions since these professionals are usually experienced in behavior modification.

Treating co-occurring mental health conditions, addiction, is also crucial to long-term recovery.

Exercise Addiction and Co-Occurring Disorders

The co-occurrence of exercise addiction with an eating disorder or another mental health disorder can add challenges for someone living with addiction.  Exercise addiction may also be coupled with substance abuse.

Illicit performance-enhancing drugs, steroids, can be overused by someone trying to fit their unrealistic physical goals. Other people may use alcohol or drugs as another compulsive behavior, their exercise addiction.

Treatment for Exercise Addiction

As with other forms of addiction, exercise addiction can be treated. The type of treatment most helpful is therapy mixed with other healthy activities including yoga, meditation and walking.

If a co-occurring disorder exists along with the exercise addiction, treating both disorders simultaneously is important for the success of the overall treatment. Only seeking treatment for one of the problems will be a short term solution to just part of the problem. The Recovery Village specializes in dual diagnosis treatment with experienced medical professionals.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps the person understand their problem behaviors, recognize triggers and develop skills to interrupt those behaviors and learn healthier ones. Another effective treatment addition is to engage the patient in healing activities, writing, painting, dancing, singing, gardening and others to take their attention off of exercising.

If you or a loved one is living with an exercise addiction that is affecting your life, The Recovery Village can help. People who have addictive symptoms and a co-occurring disorder can receive comprehensive treatment from one of the facilities located across the country. To learn more, call The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative.

  • Sources

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    Mónok, K., et al. (2012). “Psychometric properties and concurrent validity of two exercise addiction measures: A population wide study in Hungary.” Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 739 – 746.

    Berczik, K., Szabo, A., Griffiths, M. D, Kurimay, T., Kun, B., Urban, R., & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). “Exercise addiction: Symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology.” Substance Use & Misuse, 47, 403–417.

    Sussman, S., Lisha, N., Griffiths, M. “Prevalence of the Addictions: A Problem of the Majority or the Minority?” Evaluations and the Health Professions, March 3, 2011. Accessed May 5, 2019.

    Di Lodovico, L., Poulnais, S., Gorwood, P. “Which sports are more at risk of physical exercise addiction: A systematic review.” Addict Behav, June 2019. Accessed May 5, 2019.

    De la Vega, R., Parastatidou, I.S., Ruiz-Barquin, R., Szabo, A. “Exercise Addiction in Athletes and Leisure Exercisers: The Moderating Role of Passion.” Journal of Behavioral Addictions, June 1, 2016. Accessed May 5, 2019. “Athletes online: research finds technology is fuelling exercise addiction.” August 13, 2018. Accessed May 5, 2019.

    Lichtenstein, M.B., Hinze, C.J., Emborg, B., Thomsen, F., Hemmingsen, S.D. “Compulsive exercise: links, risks and challenges faced.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management, March 30, 2017. Accessed May 5, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes.

We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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