Exercise and Addiction Recovery: Top 10 Ways Exercise Rewires Your Brain

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By Chris Scott

I named my personal website Fit-Recovery because I wanted to emphasize the incredible synergy between exercise and addiction recovery. Once you’ve resolved to quit or cut down on alcohol, exercise can play a huge role in your efforts to recover from addiction and transform your life.

The early phase of my recovery from alcohol addiction was made possible by iron bars and plates. During this phase, I hadn’t yet devoured the books, articles, and studies about nutrition and supplementation that would allow me to break free from post-acute withdrawal syndrome.

Lifting weights has always been my favorite form of exercise. Watching my muscles grow and feeling myself get stronger over time gave me a physical metaphor for beating addiction. My physique became a symbol of my ultimate victory over alcohol addiction.

No matter what kind of exercise you choose, I can promise you that you’ll rewire your brain and improve your sense of life in ways you can’t yet imagine. If you’re interested in understanding the science behind this incredible process, then read on.

Top 10 Ways Exercise Rewires Your Brain

  1. Endorphins

Exercise releases painkilling and euphoria-inducing compounds called endorphins, which can make you feel good for several hours following a workout. Low levels of endorphins can be partly genetic and are associated with feeling sad, sluggish, or disinterested in everyday activities. Releasing endorphins through exercise can help people shrug off setbacks and even overcome serious trauma.

2. Serotonin

Aerobic exercise in particular has been shown to increase production of serotonin, a brain chemical that contributes to relaxation, confidence, and sleep. Most people who have just quit drinking are deficient in serotonin, which is another reason that exercise and addiction recovery go hand in hand. Working out sends a stream of amino acids into the muscles, except for tryptophan, which makes its way to the brain and serves as a precursor of serotonin. Oxygen is also necessary for serotonin production, which may explain why cardio helps the brain produce more of this brain chemical.

3. Dopamine

This feel-good chemical is involved in pleasure, reward, and motivation. Working out stimulates dopamine production in much the same way as drugs and alcohol, without all of the negative side effects! Since dopamine affects learning and motivation, it helps the brain anticipate workouts as an alternative reward to addictive substances. Along with exercise, mucuna pruriens can help the brain restore dopamine levels naturally.

4. Norepinephrine

Exercise increases levels of this neurotransmitter, which is produced in response to stress and regulates other neurotransmitters that directly inhibit stress. In this way, exercise allows the brain-body system to “practice” communication between its stress response systems. When our brain, adrenal glands, heart, and other organs involved in stress response are fine-tuned by exercise, we are less likely to overreact to everyday stressors.

5. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Working out releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps the brain produce new neurons and repair existing ones. BDNF is a relatively recent discovery that was a missing piece of the puzzle for scientists who long suspected that exercise “rewires” the brain, but couldn’t pinpoint the exact mechanism. Over time, exercise helps the brain to forge new pathways and repair itself through a phenomenon called “neuroplasticity.” There have been a growing number of stories about individuals who committed to both intense exercise and addiction recovery, and experienced profound changes in their neurochemistry.

6. Oxytocin

Regular exercise increases levels of oxytocin, which is our trust and bonding hormone. Interestingly, oxytocin also accounts for why some people experience a “high” from attending group support meetings. Exercising with other people increases oxytocin levels even further than exercising alone, helping everyone get more out of the workout. Oxytocin is so powerful that individuals with anti-social disorder who are treated with synthetic versions of this hormone often become more open and accepting of others. After I quit drinking, I moved into an apartment with two great guys who became my lifting buddies. I soon realized that the best kind of talk therapy is laughing with good friends after a hard workout.

7. Inflammation

Regular exercise has been proven to reduce inflammation, which occurs throughout the body and is one of the fundamental causes of disease. Inflammation in the gut from poor diet and lack of exercise can negatively affect brain health. People who have spent months or years abusing alcohol and other substances typically have higher levels of inflammation. Cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative conditions (like dementia) all have inflammation as a contributing factor.

8. Hormesis

Hormesis refers to stress that causes our systems to become stronger. Unlike sitting for prolonged periods or inhaling toxins, exercise is an example of hormetic stress that we evolved to experience. In response to regular exercise, our bodies produce antioxidant-like compounds that repair our cells, boost our immune systems, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. Training your brain to embrace hormetic stressors like exercise can help you beat addiction and improve your long-term health. When I began lifting weights regularly after quitting alcohol, I noticed that my bones became denser, my muscles got stronger, and even my mood became more resilient.

9. Hormonal Balance

Exercise and a diet high in healthy fats can restore the production of sex hormones that drastically enhance our sense of well-being. Alcohol wreaks havoc on testosterone levels, making men in particular susceptible to depression. Whether you’re a man or a woman, excising alcohol from your life and integrating exercise into your daily routine will result in more stable emotions and a renewed zest for life.

10. Self-Esteem

Improving one’s fitness level and body composition is a great way to build self-esteem, making us less likely to revert to destructive patterns of behavior. As I began to associate working out with feeling mentally sharp and strong, I also began to associate alcohol with feeling mentally foggy, physically weak, and bloated. Unlike the vicious cycle of addiction, exercise is a virtuous cycle that unifies the mind and body.

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A longer version of this article appears on Chris Scott’s Website, fit-recovery.com, and this link.