When you’re struggling with a mental health disorder or in addiction recovery, exercise therapy can be one of the most valuable tools in your arsenal to achieve a good quality of life, good physical health, and overall well-being. With that being said, there is a genuine risk of exercise addiction that you need to consider.
Below, we go into what you should know about the role of exercise in mental health and recovery from addiction, but also to spot potential warning signs that you could be moving toward an exercise addiction or compulsive behavior.
General Benefits of Being Physically Active
The importance of being physically active is so critical for all of us. Regardless of your situation, being active will help you feel more energized, reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer, and make it easier for you to function in your daily life.
We know that there are gradual, long-term benefits that come from exercise and nearly immediate benefits. For example, right after you engage in activity that’s at least moderate, you may notice improvements in thinking and cognition and reduced feelings of anxiety. Just 30 minutes of exercise a day can have a massive impact on your life. When you’re active, it can help keep your memory and learning skills sharp. Physical activity reduces your risk of depression and increases your sleep quality.
Exercise and Mental Health
Research tells us that exercising can be an effective treatment for adverse effects of conditions, including anxiety and depression.
Key things to know about the effects of exercise therapy on mental health include:
- Exercise helps reduce the symptoms of depression like tension, fatigue, and anger
- If you have a panic disorder or PTSD, exercise can help reduce fear, worry, and tension.
- When you exercise, if you suffer from panic attacks, it can reduce the frequency and intensity.
- Aerobic exercise decreases your body’s sensitivity in how it reacts to anxiety.
- Having a high enough activity level or participating in a regular program can help with co-occurring symptoms associated with mental health disorders, such as IBS and gastrointestinal symptoms.
- When you exercise, it helps promote neuron growth in your brain. Researchers believe this can help reduce psychiatric symptoms.
Exercise can also improve your general well-being, outside of improving specific mental disorders. For example:
- Getting adequate amounts of even moderate exercise can reduce stress hormones such as cortisol. Exercising increases endorphins, which boost your mood and improve mental health symptoms.
- Being physically active reduces your focus on negative emotions and thoughts, basically redirecting your mental energy to more positive things.
- You may notice that you feel more confident when you exercise.
- There’s a sense of social support from group exercise situations or recreational exercise, like playing on an organized team.
- You can improve your immune system when you exercise, which means you spend less time feeling sick or being impacted by minor illnesses, enhancing your quality of life.
The Role of Exercise In Addiction Treatment and Recovery
Exercise therapy is often part of addiction treatment and recovery programs because of all the above benefits. Some of the proven benefits of exercise in recovery from substance addiction specifically can include:
- Reduced stress: Stress is a significant contributing factor to an increased risk of relapse. When you find healthy ways to cope with stress, it’s going to increase your chances of long-term recovery.
- Better sleep: One of the things that almost everyone in the early stages of treatment and recovery struggles with is rest. You may sleep too much or not enough. Exercising helps stabilize your sleep patterns, and you can get more high-quality sleep.
- Improved mood: It’s difficult when you’re going through treatment and beginning recovery, which can make you feel down, discouraged, or have a low mood overall. Exercise naturally boosts brain chemicals that make you feel good and happy, like endorphins.
- Reduced relapse risk: Beyond the specific benefits of exercise that can help lower the risk of relapse, studies have generally found that the abstinence rate associated with regular exercise is around 95%.
What About Exercise Addiction?
While exercise is one of the most fundamental things you can do to take care of yourself during your addiction treatment and throughout your recovery, too much of a good thing can occur. Addiction or developing an unhealthy obsession is a risk, albeit a low one.
One of the ways to distinguish healthy exercise from compulsive exercise or excessive exercise is whether or not your exercise routine is causing negative consequences in your life. For example, if you’re over-exercising, it can lead to injuries, negatively affect your health, and it can mean that you aren’t focusing as much as you should be on other areas of your life. If you exercise too much, you aren’t giving your body the chance to recover. You need rest just as much as you need physical activity.
Someone with an exercise addiction might engage in physical activity for hours every day, and if they aren’t able to do that, they could become emotionally uncomfortable, frustrated, or anxious. As is true with other behavioral addictions like gambling, being addicted to exercise sessions is somewhat controversial. For example, some experts believe that addiction has to involve a psychoactive substance. Others argue that substance addictions share many similarities to behavioral addictions and should be characterized as such.
When you exercise, your brain’s reward system is part of the equation. That’s the case with substance addictions too. For example, too much exercise can affect the parts of your brain that involve dopamine.
Symptoms of Exercise Addiction
Potential signs of an obsession with exercise include:
- Obsessing over exercise
- Engaging in continued exercise even though it’s causing you physical harm like stress fractures
- You keep doing the harmful behavior even if you want to stop
- Trying to keep the exercise a secret
- Feeling a high after you exercise
- Going through withdrawal symptoms if you have to go extended periods without doing it
- Reducing your other activities to exercise
- Doing increasingly intense exercise to fulfill your growing exercise dependence
Some people who are most at risk of developing this type of addictive behavior include those who have another addiction, whether it’s behavioral or to a substance. For example, researchers at the University of Southern California found that 15% of exercise addicts are addicted to illicit drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. Around 25% may have other behavioral addictions, such as sex addiction.
If you previously struggled with drugs or alcohol, you could be at risk of exercise obsession. Also, people with eating disorders like anorexia nervosa or a body image disorder are more at risk of engaging in excessive exercise patterns.
Such Thing as TOO Healthy
You shouldn’t let a fear of addiction to exercise get in your way of adding a healthy habit to your life. Having routines that are good for your physical and mental health is great if you’re struggling with addiction or you’re in recovery.
At the same time, it’s just good to be mindful of any potentially harmful patterns you notice when exercising to alleviate a problem before it grows into something more. Behavioral therapy is an excellent way to tackle symptoms of compulsive exercise you might see in yourself.
If you’re noticing any compulsions in yourself or someone you care about, Anchored Tides Recovery can help. Call 866-600-7709 today to learn more about our program.