More than 100,000 Americans die each year due to the abuse of illicit drugs and alcohol, and relapse rates range from 60 to 90 percent in the first year of sobriety, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. To get clean, addicts often have to sever most of the emotional relationships from their former lives, and the loneliness can be overwhelming and relapse-inducing. Unfortunately, getting sober often has losing odds, but it can be done with support. And exercise?
Most serious runners can actually understand addiction: the rain-or-shine, even-when-sick, 4am-wake-up-call, feel-horrible-when-i-miss-a-run determination many runners display can be seen as signs of addiction. However some premature wear and tear on the joints (even this isn't necesarily true) is favored over brain, heart, liver, kidney, and lung damage, ghastly infections and death that comes along with drug and alcohol addiction.
But why we run and why we become addicted to drugs have something in common: dopamine. Dopamine is one of about a half dozen neurotransmitters in the brain (out of about 50 discovered to date) that plays a key role in addiction. Dopamine is responsible for pleasure, and is released in the brain when we do things like eat chocolate, have sex, do drugs or run. Research has shown that exercising animals are less inclined to tap a lever for morphine and it’s likely that humans experience similar effects, which is why exercise often plays a key role in recovery at treatment centers. Running and other exercise releases dopamine and can provide a natural high that has the potential to help addicts overcome drug and alcohol cravings.
But as addiction progresses, normal production of dopamine is diminished and addicts find themselves needing more of the addictive chemicals to produce the same high. Eventually the addict seeks the drug only to escape the pain and depression they feel sober, or, dopamine free.
Running and other physical activity decreases anxiety and stress, and helps increase levels of dopamine in the brain. Studies show that consistent physical activity not only helps to decrease cravings by supplying the brain with a natural dopamine boost, it also has been shown to mitigate the brain damage caused by drug abuse.
In a 2012 study in the neuroscience journal Synapse, rats were given enough meth to burn out (no pun intended) their dopamine and serotonin receptors. After their benders, some of the rats were made to run on wheels while the others were allowed to lie around in the hazy aftermath. Results showed that the rats that ran had significantly reduced the meth-induced brain damage, while the effects of the drug lingered in the brains of the lazy rats.
So, running can not only take your mind off the drug habit you’re trying to kick, it actually helps the brain recover from the damage caused by addiction.