Why Recovering Alcoholics Should Exercise

When you drink, or even just think about having a drink, your brain is stimulated to release dopamine, a natural chemical associated with rewarding behaviors. But, when you exercise, the same substance is triggered, meaning that you get a similar “buzz” from working out than from consuming a few drinks. This is why, if you are prone to alcohol abuse or have a family history of problematic drinking, regular exercise can reduce your risk of becoming dependent by increasing dopamine in a healthier context. Also, there are many other positive aspects of physical training when it comes to a tendency to drink. Therefore, most experts agree that recovering alcoholics should exercise as part of their recovery process.

Endorphins and a sense of achievement

Training is known to release other natural chemicals called endorphins. Being a morphine-like substance produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland, the principal function of endorphins is to inhibit the transmission of pain signals, thereby sometimes creating a feeling of euphoria. At the same time, exercise involves a process of setting goals and a sense of achievement when those are accomplished. Stress is reduced, and self-confidence increases as a result, which helps to curb depressed feelings and anxiety, two known precursors to drinking.

Cycle Exercise in Gym

Exercise helps to stimulate the release of the natural feel-good chemicals, dopamine and endorphins, and produces a sense of achievement and self-confidence that often negates the need to drink (Image source: Pixabay)

Social interaction counters avoidance behaviors

Added benefits are that the process of working out is most often associated with social interaction that counters isolation and avoidance behaviors. As avoidance is at the core of nearly all psychological difficulties, any mechanism working against it is a positive influence, including on the urge to drink. With personal exchanges come an increase in social skills too, and it is helpful that the person fits into a like-minded group of fellow exercise enthusiasts who value the health benefits that they achieve and likely strive for similar goals.

Exercise reduces cognitive distortions

Problematic drinking is also related to a set of cognitive distortions or dysfunctional thinking patterns. A person may fear social contact because they believe they are inferior, will do something wrong or inappropriate, or be judged or rejected. As a result, they may drink to take the edge off or blunt their sensitivity. As exercise has the opposite effect by increasing feelings of strength and self-assurance, it makes sense that the need for alcohol reduces gradually.

Alcohol, exercise, and the circadian rhythm

Another aspect worth mentioning is the fact that alcohol disturbs a person’s circadian rhythm. This means that he or she has problems falling or staying asleep when alcohol has been consumed, which can cause a destructive cycle as psychological distress and the need to drink is further increased. Regular exercise generates a self-sustaining circadian rhythm and has a positive impact on the overall quality of sleep that is an alternative or adjuvant treatment for insomnia that is safer than drugs or other substances.

About Joan Swart, PsyD, Forensic Psychologist and lecturer

Joan Swart is a forensic psychologist, lecturer, and business developer at Open Forest LLC. She authored two books titled “Treating Adolescents with Family-Based Mindfulness” (Springer, 2015) and “Homicide: A Forensic Psychology Casebook” (CRC, 2016). She is a contributor to Hubpages and HuffPost.

Joan Swart on the Web
More on: Addiction, Alcohol, Drinking
Latest update: January 27, 2017
Open Forest