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How Running Helps People Maintain Their Sobriety

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Nov 8, 2018 9:30:00 AM

How Running Helps People Maintain Their Sobriety

How Running Helps People Maintain Their Sobriety


The dangerous use of substances such as drugs and alcohol affects nearly 21 million people in the United States. Addiction is a terrible disease, for which many people each year attempt to find treatment. Between 40 and 60 percent of people who have received treatment for a substance use disorder will relapse within a year, according to a 2014 JAMA study.

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The high that comes from substance use is a major reason why so many people continue to rely on drugs or alcohol. The euphoric feeling is not only psychologically addictive but also leads to a chemical imbalance that causes the body to desire more of the same substance to achieve the original effects.


However, there is another high, a much healthier one, that can be extremely beneficial for those in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.



Achieving the ‘Runner’s High’


When people perform cardiovascular activities, endorphins are produced. With similar effects to that of morphine, an opioid that causes a euphoric and painless feeling, endorphins are a natural body chemical that attributes to the “runner’s high” phenomenon. A runner’s high blocks the perception of physical pain and allows people who are running to increase their speed or distance for the length of the euphoria. Since the feeling is pleasurable, many runners have looked into ways to achieve the high more consistently during their cardiovascular activities.


How does this experience help those who have a prior history of substance use and addiction? Running not only releases endorphins but also feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are also released when a person takes drugs or alcohol, which causes the brain to associate the positive, pain-free experience to the use of these substances. The mental connection that is generated often causes a psychological dependence on the substance to form. That psychological dependence is one of the biggest challenges in rehabilitation and maintaining sobriety.


For many people who are in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, finding a replacement activity that releases the same chemicals is necessary. Cardiovascular activities such as running, in large part due to the runner’s high phenomenon, can serve as that replacement due to the release of the same chemicals.



Fulfilling the Chemical Cravings


When people take substances such as drugs or alcohol, it often causes the release of feel-good chemicals, which can lead to a euphoric experience. The brain links the use of that substance to the positive feelings. Then the body wants more of that same substance to produce and release endorphins, serotonin and dopamine.


The release of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine is another part of how people become addicted to drugs or alcohol. The presence of drugs in a person’s body, which involves interaction with opioid receptors in the brain, which releases those chemicals and causes an imbalance to occur. The body then re-establishes a balance as it becomes accustomed to the presence of the substance and the release of these chemicals. However, taking drugs and alcohol is required to maintain the same balance and the lack of these substances over a period of time can cause a person to become ill.


Running can serve as a replacement to substance use since the activity induces the same chemicals. Instead of the brain tying the chemical cravings to a substance, it will begin doing so for cardiovascular activities. This connection also causes a psychological shift, as people now have another outlet to induce the same positive feelings that substance use can create.



Feeling Better About Ourselves


There is a link between substance use and mental health disorders. One of the more than 43 million Americans who struggle with anxiety, depression or another mental illness often face self-esteem difficulties.


The release of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins through running causes positive feelings and a desire to continue this exercise. By participating more often, people can increase their running distance or decrease their running times. The feeling of accomplishment that comes from running frequently and improving could deter feelings of anxiety or depression by raising a person’s self-esteem.


Going through life with a substance use disorder can be extremely difficult. Following the completion of a rehabilitation program, people who struggle with this illness are likely to face roadblocks during their recovery. The desire to appease cravings for a substance can occur, and people may need a tireless effort to maintain their sobriety. While recovery from substance use is a lifelong challenge, no one is alone in the process. The first step in recovery is completing a treatment program, which involves the removal of substances from their body through detoxification and then attending counseling sessions to learn coping strategies. Following treatment, many people turn to exercise and running as a replacement to their addictions. Doing so can diminish the chemical and psychological dependence that a person has on drugs or alcohol, leading to a happier and healthier life.


Topics: Think Deeper, Mental Health