Fitness and Nutrition in Addiction Recovery

Fitness and Nutrition in Addiction Recovery

When it comes to addiction recovery, most people think first of rehab. Rehab is a very useful process which involves therapy, group meetings and education in order to provide recovering drug users with the skills that they need to sober up. While rehab is useful, there are other – and often, more simple – things to consider in recovery including the importance of fitness and nutrition.

In fact, fitness and nutrition are both so important that they can outright prevent an addiction. In extreme cases, fitness and nutrition can become addictions on their own – but when managed properly, a healthy diet and a regular exercise routine can encourage your brain to produce the same chemical components that you seek from drugs or alcohol.

In this article we’re going to discuss the importance of fitness and nutrition in addiction recovery. We will also discuss how the absence of a healthy diet or a regular exercise routine can actually contribute to addiction rates.

Causes of Addiction – Lack of Exercise & Malnutrition

When people discuss the many causes of addiction, the majority of the discussion centers around the addicted individual’s mental health. Issues like trauma, depression, and anxiety are often cited as causes of addiction. While this is certainly most often the case, it’s important to address the reality that exercise (or lack thereof) and malnutrition can also contribute to addiction.

Lack of Exercise Can Contribute to Addiction

Humans are inherently active creatures. Our bodies produce energy on a regular basis and this energy needs to be expended. When this doesn’t happen we experience a number of different problems. 

Unfortunately, we live in a society that doesn’t encourage much activity. Huge numbers of people spend their days in an office. Here, they expend enough mental energy to find themselves fatigued – but rarely do they get enough exercise. Unless they make a point of exercising daily, there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t get enough exercise.

Lack of exercise is known to be a cause of disease. When people don’t exercise, their muscles also become much weaker. This can cause general fatigue and malaise. People may feel the need to supplement their lack of energy with drugs or alcohol. If you don’t have enough energy to socialize or accomplish your daily tasks, it’s not hard to cross the threshold into substance abuse in an attempt to stabilize your life.

A lack of exercise is also known to be a factor in depression as noted by the many studies that acknowledge exercise as a viable treatment for depression. This can be caused, in part, by hormonal imbalances caused by a sedentary lifestyle. 

Since depression is one of the main causes of addiction, it makes sense that exercise could also be a factor for fighting addiction. We will discuss this in greater detail below.

An Unhealthy Diet Can Contribute to Addiction

Our body relies on a large number of different vitamins and minerals in order to function. We get these vitamins and minerals from a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Unfortunately, the average American diet is sorely lacking in these crucial dietary elements.

If we don’t get the nutrients that we need from our diets, and if we’re not taking the appropriate nutritional supplements, then our body won’t be able to function properly. These vitamins and minerals allow our body to produce the proper reactions for creating hormones, neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and other compounds needed for us to have a healthy, stable mindset.

Many studies have revealed that poor diets can contribute to mental health disorders. Issues like depression and anxiety are far more common in people who do not eat healthily. These conditions, in turn, can contribute to the likelihood of developing an addiction.

How to Use Diet & Exercise in Addiction Recovery

Now that you understand how diet and exercise can aggravate, or even cause, an addiction, you’ll want to learn how to use these things to help with your recovery. If you want it can be as simple as eating more vegetables and going for a daily jog. However, if you’re interested in developing a routine specifically tailored to helping with your addiction, you’ll want to know a bit more.

How Does Exercise Help With Addiction?

There have been some studies done to prove the importance of exercise in addiction recovery. One study, which focused on 38 people who were known to abuse a variety of substances – including opiates, cannabis, amphetamines, and cocaine – evaluated the effects of thrice-weekly exercise routines.

Of the 20 people who completed the study, 5 of them reported being completely abstinent from drugs and 10 of them had significantly decreased their substance use. 

But how exactly does this work? There are a number of factors to consider.

Cravings & Exercise

Many people find that the simple act of exercise gives them something to focus on. Rather than succumbing to their drug cravings, they can focus on an empowering activity that is healthy and productive. Group workouts can also foster healthy social connections with other people which can provide a sense of fulfillment.

There are, in fact, exercise groups that tailor to recovering addicts. One such group is known as the Boston Bulldogs Running Club. This group aims to help people in active addiction, as well as their loved ones, find support in community exercise programs.

Exercise & Mental Health

Exercise is also regarded as one of the most effective treatments for helping people work through mental health problems. In one way or another, mental health issues are often at the root of addiction.

  • Exercise is known to be a useful combatant against stress. Stress is a common cause of addiction. While stress is often considered a mental-emotional issue, its influence affects the entire human body. The effects of stress can present both physical and mental discomfort which can drive someone to drinking or drugging to ease the pain.

    Exercise is known to reduce stress-related fatigue as well as improving concentration, mental alertness, and mental functioning. Altogether these factors can provide a sense of grounding and stability which can encourage someone to remain sober.

  • Exercise is known to be an effective remedy for anxiety. In regard to anxiety, people need not engage in vigorous exercise. A short walk of 10 minutes can be just as effective as an intense, half-hour workout. At the very least, these short stints of exercise can help provide an opportunity to focus on something other than your anxiety.

  • Exercise encourages the body to produce neurotransmitters. These are brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in regulating things like mood, motivation, and energy. When we cannot produce these neurotransmitters – for example, when we are sedentary – we may become depressed, anxious, and prone to addiction.

    The most common neurotransmitters associated with addiction are called endorphins. Endorphin is a term that actually means endogenous (self-produced) morphine. In other words, endorphins are the body’s own way of producing an opiate-like high.

    However, exercise also stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine. Both of these neurotransmitters are often depleted in people who struggle with depression. In fact, most antidepressants work by encouraging the brain to make better use of serotonin. This same effect can be replicated by getting regular exercise.


Nutrition, Addiction & Mental Health

We have already established that nutrition can be a contributing factor for addiction. But how exactly can nutrition be useful for helping people overcome addiction? There are several factors to consider.

Nutrition for Repairing Physical Damage

The abuse of certain drugs can contribute to oxidation. Oxidation is a normal response to the presence of oxygen, but over time oxidation can cause free radicals to emerge. Free radicals are basically rogue electrons that cause cell damage and lead to deterioration of tissues and organs.

Foods rich in antioxidants can help to prevent or minimize the damage done by free radicals and oxidation. Antioxidant-rich foods include fresh fruits and vegetables like leafy greens.

Healthy Fats for Balancing Mood

Our body, and especially our brain, relies on healthy fats to function. Two fats in particular, EPA and DHA, are known for being important for the regulation of mood and cognitive ability. If you’re not getting enough of these valuable omega fatty acids in your diet, then you’re more likely to experience issues with anxiety and depression.

Striking a healthy balance of these fats can be tricky. Fatty fish like salmon and sardines are among the best sources. It’s also important that you cut out excess omega-6 fatty acids which are found in common frying oils like canola. The same digestive enzymes that process EPA and DHA also process omega-6 fats, so if you have too much omega-6 then you won’t be able to absorb the healthier fats.

Thiamine in Alcohol Recovery

Regular alcohol consumption depletes the body of thiamine. Most people think this is what causes a hangover, but there is some debate about this. Regardless, the effects of long-term thiamine depletion can be serious.

Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine is important for all tissues in the body. Without thiamine, you may be more likely to develop dementia, heart disease, vision problems, and memory loss. Healthy sources of thiamine include peas, legumes, seeds, nuts,  eggs, oranges, and fortified foods like vegetable milks.

Complex Carbs & Energy

It is understood that refined carbs – things like sugar, white bread, processed pasta – aren’t great for you. They spike your blood sugar and lead to drastic energy fluctuations which can contribute to diabetes and other problems.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, can provide slow and sustained energy throughout the day. Complex carbs can be found in foods like sweet potatoes, whole grains, and legumes.

Protein for Weight Gain

Many people lose weight during an addiction. It is not uncommon for recovering drug users to lack muscle tone and mass. It’s important to eat protein to help build back the muscle lost during addiction. This is especially important if you’re starting a new workout routine in an effort to regain lost weight.

Cautioning the Use of Fitness & Nutrition as Addiction Replacements

While fitness and nutrition are valuable factors in any addiction recovery plan, it’s important to recognize that they can become addictions on their own. While a fitness addiction may not be as destructive as, say, a heroin addiction, it’s important to note that the addictive behavior mechanisms can still be a detriment to living a full life.

Exercise Addiction

It is not uncommon for people coming out of a substance addiction to replace it with an exercise addiction. Characterized as an unhealthy obsession with exercise, this type of addiction is known as a process addiction.

While an exercise addiction may not lead to physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms, it can still prevent you from living a full life. People who struggle with process addictions are still attempting to fill some sort of void. In the case of an exercise addiction, people often become addicted to the release of endorphins and other pleasurable neurotransmitters released by exercise.

However, it is completely possible to damage your body by over-exercising it. It’s important to give yourself time to rest if you don’t want to hurt yourself. Finally, if you’ve simply replaced your substance abuse problem with an exercise addiction, you must recognize that it’s quite likely that the underlying issues causing your addiction are still present.

Nutrition, Health & Supplement Addiction

Another issue that may present itself during your recovery is an addiction to nutrition and health. While this might, at first, seem silly, it’s entirely possible to overcompensate by becoming addicted to nutritional seeking. In extreme cases, this can actually become unhealthy.

For example, some recovering addicts begin to excessively consume nutritional supplements in an effort to combat damage done by addiction. The body can only process and absorb so many nutrients at a time. Over-indulging, even in healthy supplements, can cause strain on the body.

People may also develop an addiction to unhealthy foods such as sugar or fried foods in an effort to replace the satisfaction that they found from drugs or alcohol. We need not discuss the obvious health consequences of developing an unhealthy food addiction.


Fitness and nutrition are important aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Fitness and nutrition, or lack thereof, can either contribute to or help one recover from an addiction.

People who eat a healthy diet and exercise on a regular basis are far less likely to struggle with addiction and related mental health problems like depression and anxiety. On the other hand, recovering addicts often have a much easier time getting sober when they practice healthy eating and regular exercise.

It’s important to remember, however, that these healthy practices can become addictions in themselves. Make sure to eat healthy and exercise on a regular basis, but don’t allow this to become the entire focus of your life.

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