Why People Turn to Exercise to Stay Sober

There are real physical, psychological, and social benefits for people in recovery

Jon Marcus
Elemental
Published in
5 min readAug 27, 2019

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Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

SScott Lapollo runs up to a popular path encircling a reservoir at the edge of Boston and smiles at the sight of hordes of other runners doing laps.

Not long ago he was more likely to spend a cloudless Saturday like this one getting high on something other than sunshine and endorphins, he says. Now he’s working his way through the legal system and fighting his addiction to prescription drugs. Part of his recovery is running with fellow members of the Boston Bulldogs, a running group of men and women who are also contending with substance issues or have family or friends who are.

“It’s like we’re all in this together,” says Lapollo, 43.

Over the last several years, a growing body of research has suggested that exercise may help reinforce addiction recovery. Amid the optimistic news, more and more groups like the Boston Bulldogs are forming. Along with running and cycling clubs catering to people with addictions, there are fitness trainers and gyms that specialize in helping clients stay sober.

“For a while there was only psychotherapy and medications. More recently the benefit of exercise has become apparent, so a lot of practitioners have started using these approaches together,” says Anthony Kouri, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center in Ohio. “It helps people fill their time, release endorphins, and feel naturally good instead of the synthetic feeling of using drugs.”

Exercise reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety, while increasing endorphins and adrenaline. Early animal studies have shown that physical activity can curb dependencies on substances including opioids and cocaine; tests on people addicted to drugs in Denmark found that regular exercise improved energy, body image, and quality of life for most people in the study and, for nearly half of them, helped end or reduce their substance use.

“It helps people fill their time, release endorphins, and feel naturally good instead of the…

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Jon Marcus
Elemental

Jon Marcus writes for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, and other U.S. and U.K. media outlets.