The Benefits of Exercise Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Updated on 05/20/24

Content review by Derek Wilksen, CEO of Casa Palmera LA

Recovery from mental health conditions and substance use disorder (SUD) requires more than just psychotherapy. While psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a necessary component of treatment and recovery, there are many other treatment modalities that can be used alongside individual therapy sessions to make them more effective.

One such complementary treatment activity includes exercise. Exercise is known to have incredible benefits for one’s mental and physical well-being. It can enhance an individual’s treatment and recovery process and encourage greater responsibility during their healing journey.

The Impact of Exercise on Mental Health

There is a plethora of research that emphasizes the impact of exercise on an individual’s health and well-being. Mental health and physical health are inherently connected; what tends to be good for the body also tends to be healthy for the mind. Still, it can be helpful to understand the specific benefits that exercise has on one’s health.

Several notable benefits of exercise on mental health include:

  • Improved brain health
  • Improved cognitive functioning, including specific functions of memory retention, self-control, decision-making, concentration, and more
  • Reduced risk of anxiety and depression
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved overall quality of life

Additional benefits include:

  • Reducing negative mood
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Alleviating symptoms of low self-esteem and social withdrawal
  • Better endurance
  • Stress relief
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness and, as a result, increased mental alertness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness

How Exercise Affects Mental Health

Although it is common knowledge that exercise is a necessity for wellness, many people neglect to understand just how exercise affects mental health. An article titled “Exercise for Mental Health” in the journal Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry explains that the importance of exercise is not properly understood by individuals or mental health professionals.

The article later explains that improvements in mood brought on through exercise are thought to be caused by “Exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, this, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.” In other words, researchers’ best hypothesis is that exercise increases blood flow to the brain and all other areas of the body, which results in greater communication between all areas of the body and associated functioning. This leads to reduced stress and overall improved motivation and mood.

The same article also explains that exercise could affect mental health through a combination of distraction, self-efficacy and social interaction. Exercise, especially structured group programs, can encourage individuals to make necessary lifestyle changes that improve their mental wellness.

The Use of Exercise Therapy in Addiction Recovery

Exercise therapy is a regimen of physical activities utilized to complement an individual’s treatment and recovery process. It is used to help treat and manage a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, especially SUD. Not only does exercise help restore the brain and body with essential nutrients achieved from adequate blood circulation, but it also empowers individuals to feel in control of their bodies.

Addiction is a chaotic and complex mental health condition one can recognize by compulsive drug-seeking and drug-using behavior, despite the adverse consequences that may result from such behavior. SUD is defined as a loss of self-control over substance use. However, this loss of control is not a result of moral failing or weakness, but rather occurs as a result of chronic and repeated substance use, which alters brain structure and functioning in such a way that the brain begins to seek out substances to feel pleasure.

Treatment must work to reverse these brain changes, and psychotherapy, while beneficial, is not effective enough on its own to do the trick. Addiction recovery therapies must encourage engagement in additional recovery opportunities, including exercise, to complement traditional therapeutic interventions.

Exercise is a wonderful opportunity for individuals in recovery to be proactive about their healing and recovery process. Treatment can be stressful and tiring. For treatment to be as effective as possible, individuals in recovery must work to get sufficient sleep, eat healthily and engage in movement throughout the day. Whether in residential treatment or outpatient treatment, taking daily walks, hikes or other exercise opportunities to decompress can be beneficial for both short-term and long-term recovery. This is the true value of exercise therapy.

Suggestions of Physical Activities for Those in Addiction Recovery

It’s easy to say that exercise is good for mental health, but it is important to emphasize that physical activity can look many different ways. When most people think of exercise, they may think of running or cycling and immediately become uninterested. For those who cringe at the idea of intense physical exertion, or those who need additional suggestions for physical activity, try:

  • Dancing
  • Taking a yoga class
  • Playing frisbee
  • Following an online workout video
  • Taking the stairs
  • Kayaking
  • Core workouts
  • Walking dogs
  • Rollerblading
  • Rock climbing
  • Gardening activities, such as pushing a lawn mower or pulling weeds

Exercise can positively affect mental health because it increases blood circulation and, as a result, improves communication between the brain, body and associated functions for both. For individuals in recovery, exercise can foster greater responsibility and serve as a way to decompress between treatment sessions. Casa Palmera is a comprehensive addiction treatment facility that uses exercise therapy to complement the traditional treatment process. We offer a range of different treatment programs and modalities to help individualize each patient’s care. We are motivated to help individuals heal from the consequences of substance use and prove to themselves that recovery is possible. To learn more, contact us today.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.