Evidence Supporting the Benefits of Aerobic Exercise in Recovery

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


Excerpt from the Article:

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, 2005Liu, Xiaoping, Wei, & Zeng, 2000Rogers & Robbins, 2001Scott, et al., 2007).

  4. Lastly, increases in self-efficacy (McAuley, Courneya, & Lettunich, 1991) and decreases in stress-reactivity (Hobson & Rejeski, 1993Keller, 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.

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

Strides in Recovery is a 501(c)(3) non profit organization.

  • Facebook
  • Instagram