Despite the many psychotherapeutic and psychopharmacologic interventions, relapse rates for substance abuse and dependence remains high.  A 2011 European review article reported in The Scientific World Journal took a close look at affects of exercise on relapse prevention.  The outcomes show promise.

The authors scoured the databases of Pub Med, Medline, and Web of Science to find studies that investigated any form of exercise as a therapeutic intervention strategy.  They looked at smoking, alcohol and illicit drug abuse/dependence. Smoking cessation studies had the most scientifically stringent methods (the most randomized control trials) and clear outcomes. Exercise, however, showed promise in all three areas with respect to relapse prevention.


  • Neurochemical changes -dysfunctions in neurotransmitters that have been linked to craving; exercise may help reverse those faulty functions
  • Reduction in craving – in smoking studies, exercise reduced craving and withdrawal-related negative mood
  • Mood regulation – stress, anxiety and depression are major reasons for relapse, exercise was shown to improve mood so long as it wasn’t too intense or competitive (which worsened the effect)
  • Poor self-reliance – substance abusers have low self-esteem due to their lack of control.  Some study authors generalized that supervised training and positive fitness results can increase positive self image

As far as type of exercise both aerobic and resistance training showed similar positive results.  It was also important to introduce exercise after the acute phase, meaning after patients got through detox. What seemed to be most helpful was exercise at least 3 times a week for about 9 weeks.  Researchers will want to look more deeply into type, duration, timing and the many other ways one can slice and dice study designs.

At this point, however, it is clear that exercise does point to relapse prevention.  That alone should motivate more counselors and addiction recovery centers to help their patients find ways to include exercise as part of their life-long recovery strategy.



  1. JoAnn Post author

    Thanks Mary it is my hope that more center and counselors engage exercise professionals to help their patients live a longer healthier drug-free life. I look forward to someday being part of those who help them do so.


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