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Evidence Supporting the Benefits of Aerobic Exercise in Recovery

Benefits of Goal Oriented Group Training during Residential Treatment

Summary:  Benefits include pushing forward in recovery, sense of achievement, sense of belonging

  • Title: Managing Substance Use Disorder through a Walking/Running Training Program

  • Full Citation and Link: Managing Substance Use Disorder through a Walking/Running Training Program,  Chia-Liang Dai , Ching-Chen Chen, George B Richardson and Howard R. D. Gordon, Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment Volume 14: 1–8 © The Author(s) 2020 DOI: 10.1177/117822182093668

Summary: Physical health and psychological health Quality of Life scores improved significantly

Summary Article Referencing Numerous Studies

A Pilot Study of Aerobic Exercise as an Adjunctive Treatment for Drug Dependence

Excerpt from the Article: This study is one of the first to demonstrate the feasibility of incorporating aerobic exercise during drug abuse treatment. Participants demonstrated a significant increase in percent days abstinent for both alcohol and drugs at the end of treatment, and those who attended at least 75% of the exercise sessions had significantly better substance use outcomes than those who did not. In addition, participants showed a significant increase in their cardiorespiratory fitness by the end of treatment. 

Exercise may benefit drug dependent patients attempting recovery from substance problems through a number of different mechanisms of action.

  1. First, engaging in exercise may offer drug dependent patients the ability to experience positive mood states without the use of drugs. (Adinoff, 2004; Bressan & Crippa, 2005). On the other hand, exercise has been shown to result in acute improvements in positive-activated affect (e.g., (Reed & Ones, 2006

  2. Engaging in exercise has been consistently associated with reductions in depressive symptoms  (Craft & Landers, 1998Dunn, Trivedi, & O’Neal, 2001Lawlor & Hopker, 2001Mead, et al., 2009) and thus exercise may reduce risk for relapse by reducing depressive symptoms.

  3. Third, exercise has been found to alleviate sleep disturbances (Youngstedt, 2005) and improve cognitive functioning (Kramer & Erickson, 2007) – both of which have been identified as disrupted in early drug recovery and predictive of relapse (Drummond, Gillin, Smith, & DeModena, 1998Ersche & Sahakian, 2007Gruber, Silveri, & Yurgelun-Todd, 2007Jovanovski, Erb, & Zakzanis, 2005; Liu, Xiaoping, Wei, & Zeng, 2000; Rogers & Robbins, 2001Scott, et al., 2007).

  4. Lastly, increases in self-efficacy (McAuley, Courneya, & Lettunich, 1991) and decreases in stress-reactivity (Hobson & Rejeski, 1993; Keller, 1980) associated with exercise engagement may also contribute to lower the risk of relapse among drug dependent patients. Among problem drinkers, exercise led to psychological improvement in physical self-worth and physical self-perceptions of condition and strength (Donaghy & Mutrie, 1998).

Exercise has been proposed as an effective relapse prevention intervention specifically due to the potential number of positive physiological and psychological benefits. Improved mood, regulated reward systems, reduced depressive symptoms, improved sleep and cognitive function all may serve to reduce risk for relapse and efforts to illuminate mechanisms of effectiveness will be an important focus of future work in this area.

Links to Additional Studies 

Summary: Participants in early recovery report numerous benefits

  • Title: Benefits of Exercise for Individuals in Remission from Substance Use Disorders

  • Full Citation and Link:   Amdahl, Tiffany, "Benefits of Exercise for Individuals in Remission from Substance Use Disorders" (2016). Social Work Master’s Clinical Research Papers. 561. 

Summary: Regular exercise + therapy restores dopamine receptor activity more quickly than therapy alone.

Summary:  Exercise increases the rate of growth and connection of new brain cells, speeding the restoration of normal brain structure and function.

Summary:  Exercise with social support reduces the risk of relapse and improves outcomes.

  • Title: Defying the odds of relapse: Social connection and exercise influence on long-term recovery of substance use disorder 

  • Full Citation and Link: Avino, H. M. (2020). Defying the odds of relapse: Social connection and exercise influence on long-term recovery of substance use disorder [Unpublished doctoral literature review/quality improvement project]. Arizona State University Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation. 

Summary:  Sleep disturbances increase the risk of relapse.  Exercise improves sleep quality.

Summary: Exercise improves emotional processing

Summary: Exercise is an effective treatment for depression.

Summary: Exercise reduces stress-induced cocaine-seeking behavior

Summary: Exercise supports stress management  

Summary: Exercise reduces cannabis cravings and use

Summary: Exercise helps with common co-occurring conditions and relapse triggers, including depression and anxiety

Additional Citations 

  • Donaghy, M.E. & Ussher, M.H. (2005). Exercise interventions in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. In: Faulkner G, Taylor AH, editors. Exercise, Health, and Mental Health: Emerging Relationships (pp. 48–69). London, UK: Routledge.

  • Donohue, B., Pitts, M., Gavrilova, Y., Ayarza, A. & Cintron, K. I. (2013). A Culturally Sensitive Approach to Treating Substance Abuse in Athletes Using Evidence-Supported Methods. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 7, 98-119

  • Jefferis, B. J. M. H., Manor, O. & Power, C. (2007). Social gradients in binge drinking and abstaining: trends in a cohort of British adults. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 61, 150–153.

  • Waller,S., Naidoo,B. and Thom,B. (2002): Prevention and reduction of alcohol misuse: review of reviews. Evidence Briefing. Health Development Agency. London.

  • Zschucke, E., Heinz, A. & Strohle, A. (2012). Exercise and Physical Activity in the Therapy of Substance Use Disorders. The Scientific World Journal. 901741. doi: 10.1100/2012/901741

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