How Exercise Keeps You Sober

By Jennifer Matesa 01/16/12
Working out can be a crucial tool for people who are trying to stay clean. But for some people, excessive exercise can be equally addictive.
Exercise in Addiction: Too Much of A Good Thing?

Not long ago, a guy named Brian emailed me and told me the tragic story of a friend of his, a master swimmer and “finisher of many Ironman triathlons." According to Brian, he was also a “meeting-a-day guy." He was well regarded in 12-step circles for his “willingness”—a key ingredient, they say, to recovery. He was in perfect shape—evidently happy, reliable, he was one of those guys in the program who have what you want.

And then, one day,  he committed suicide.

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” wrote Brian, himself a triathlete with 30 years sober. Endurance athletics are a big part of Brian's recovery, in much the same way they were for his late friend. He’d always compared physical fitness with the “spiritual fitness” that people who work the 12 steps say is necessary to recover from addiction. I clicked over to the online guest book for the man who’d taken his own life and read the comments, which mostly expressed shock.

Many people in recovery turn to exercise when they get sober. It's not a novel concept. Working out can help channel the obsessive thoughts associated with addiction. Many turn to yoga, running, Pilates, kickboxing, triathlons—the list is long (the exercise industry earns at least $20 billion in the US, ironically the same amount that is earned annually by the addiction industry)—but tragedies like Brian's friend's point to a small but growing chorus that wonders if exercise can actually "turn" on an addict—much like drugs and alcohol once did. In the most extreme situation, can it lead to suicide?

Brian made some provocative points: Maybe athletics can be used, like a drug, to avoid emotional pain? "I think about how hard my friend tried," he said. "How hard he worked it"—both his program and his athletic regimen—"and I wonder now about the limits of trying, doing, working and as we say 'working it'—at least when all that comes at the expense of acceptance."

At least one study is looking hard at the question, and coming up with some surprising results. Madhukar H. Trivedi, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of the Dallas-based Mood Disorders Research Program and Clinic at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has long researched exercise regimens as treatments for depression. Trivedi is in the middle of a two-year randomized clinical trial to study the effects of intensive exercise to treat addiction to cocaine, amphetamines, and other illegal stimulants.

Compared to, say, nicotine addiction, says Trivedi, “there are very limited treatment choices available for cocaine and methamphetamine abuse.” As a doctor, he’s also very interested in pharmacological options, “but they aren’t the answer for everything, and we need additional treatments for these diseases. When a patient says, ‘Tell me all the things that work for cocaine and methamphetamine abuse,’ we want to add exercise to that.”

Supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Trivedi’s study is dividing 330 stimulant addicts into two groups, each starting in residential rehab. One group performs an intensive inpatient fitness regimen for three months, with weekly outpatient followups over the next six months. Meanwhile, a control group receives health education classes. Subjects in the exercise group are prescribed a “dose” of exercise: they run on treadmills at 85 percent of maximum heart rate for 30-50 minutes, depending on their baseline fitness level, gradually ramping their doses up over the 12 weeks, with pre-workout warm-up and post-workout stretching.

One former meth addict and swiller of Bacardi 151 is now cross-fit athlete, solo trail-runner and ultra-marathoner with 19 years sober and more than 200 ultras notched on her belt. She preaches the gospel of extreme fitness. "What drives me to run?" she has said. "Keeping me clean and sober and sane."

Trivedi thinks the addicts getting “doses” of exercise will go more days without using drugs than the other groups.

Here's how it works: Most people think exercise works to distract addicts from obsessing about using, but Trivedi believes it also boosts critical brain chemicals—dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin—the same chemicals sparked by most drugs of addiction. Trivedi’s team will be testing subjects not just for number of days abstinent but also gauging their improvements in mood, weight, sleep, quality of life. Trivedi cites animal studies that have shown exercise can spur the nervous system’s ability to heal itself, otherwise known as neuroplasticity. In short, he says, exercise re-grooves our memory pathways, which can often be battered by extensive substance use.

“There is an assumption that patients that have [addiction] are unable to imprint or engage—lay down—new memories that would help them avoid repeating the behavior that gets them to engage in drug-use,” Trivedi says. “But the brain can adapt very easily. You have to work at it, but the brain does adapt significantly. It’s not like you’re born with the brain and it never changes.”

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.