Exploring the Potential of Exercise as a Treatment to Addiction

Every morning, as I arrive at work, I know that the events of my day will focus on one foundational purpose: How can I create an environment that will allow the men at our alcohol and drug treatment center to realize the power of exercise?  While this challenge can often be daunting (it is not easy to compete with a comfy couch and Monday Night Football), there are shining stories of success that both re-energize my efforts, as well as provide proof to the men that such a metamorphosis is possible.

It Is Possible to Change

In July of 1992, Charlie Engle, a hardcore drug addict of ten years, gave up drugs for good after smoking crack cocaine in a seedy hotel room in Wichita, Kansas. The now 45-year-old Engle has since run across the Sahara Desert in North Africa, covering 4,300 miles en route. Engle, who regularly runs 40-50 miles a day, is considered a legend in ultra-marathon running circles. Now, go ahead and add to the list the Gobi Desert, Atacama Desert, the Amazon rainforest, Vietnam, and the jungles of Borneo – not bad for a former addict.

Engle, in an interview, explained how his substance misuse actually prepared him for his new life. “Drug addiction was my training ground,” said Engle. Engle elaborates on this notion, stating that “Without those 10 years of torture, there’s not a chance in hell I’d be doing the things I’m doing today. I figured out I didn’t need to trash my addictive traits in order to be good at something other than taking drugs.” Obviously, Engle is an extreme case, but he is not alone in his belief that the transition from negative drug addiction to a positive exercise addiction is a powerful tool for recovery.

Brain Chemicals Have Often Been Identified with the “Runner’s High”

Another person who has experienced the redemptive powers of exercise is Todd Crandell. His remarkable story was featured alongside Engle’s in the same article, as both stories were too influential to be cut out.  Not only has Crandell helped himself overcome a life of addiction, but also, he has founded a revolutionary organization called Racing for Recovery that now helps others do the same.

After being an addict for 13 years, it got to the point, says Crandell, that “When I woke up in the morning, my first thought would be, damn, I’m still alive. How much of this stuff is it going to take for me to overdose and die?” In 1993, with a beer in hand, after over a decade of addiction, Crandell decided to change his life for good. He started training to compete in the Ironman triathlon, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. When asked about the appeal of competing in such a gruelling event, Crandell remarks, “When I’m running, I feel like I’m on amphetamine. People say to me that I’ve just swapped one addiction for another addiction. They’re both highs, but one is destructive and the other is extremely productive.”

Brain chemicals have often been identified with the “runner’s high” and with drug addiction. In his Maxim story, Frank Owen points to research on endorphins as a mood-lifting brain chemical that has its fair share of both proponents and critics. Other brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine have also been identified in the research.

A New Book Holds Promise for Those Struggling with Drug and Alcohol Addiction

So, what are we to make of all of this? How is it that exercise helps former addicts overcome decade-long addictions? Dr. John Ratey devotes a chapter of his new book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain to answering just such a question. Ratey spends much of the chapter weaving together case studies and his ‘alternative’ approach that incorporates exercise as a form of treatment for his patients. He uses stories from many of his own patients who have had success overcoming their addictions with exercises ranging from Dance Dance Revolution to jump rope. However, the truly fascinating parts come from Ratey’s explanation of the neuroscience behind his patients’ success.

Ratey explains, “What makes addiction such a stubborn problem is the structural changes it causes in the brain. Scientists now consider addiction a chronic disease because it wires in a memory that triggers reflexive behaviour.”  According to Ratey, exercise is perhaps the most powerful way to combat this structural change. “Exercise builds synaptic detours around the well-worn connections automatically looking for the next fix”, says Ratey. While this may be the most notable component in terms of addiction, exercise also has a restorative and rebalancing effect on the brain that Ratey goes on to discuss in depth.

There are two things important to note. Firstly, is that exercise does not merely induce a ‘runner’s high’, but it also stimulates the release of many neurotransmitters that help regulate normal brain function.  Secondly, exercise actually changes the structure of your brain, creating new pathways that serve as alternatives to getting back on the merry-go-round that is addiction.

An Addiction Research “Giant” is Now Studying Exercise

As recently as this past June, the US-based National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) held a two-day symposium, Can Physical Activity and Exercise Prevent Drug Abuse? Promoting a Full Range of Science to Inform Prevention, which gathered practitioners and basic, clinical, and translational researchers from various disciplines to share ideas.


As compelling stories of recovery such as Todd Crandell’s and Charlie Engle’s continue to emerge, it has become increasingly clear that exercise can be used as a powerful weapon in the fight against addiction.  Here at Sunshine Coast Health Center, we have jumped on board the paradigm-shifting movement toward using exercise to overcome addiction.

While stories like Crandell’s and Engle’s help to lend authenticity to amassing scientific research regarding exercise and addiction, they also reinforce the need for continued research at the point in which neuroscience and exercise converge.  Only through the continued scientific exploration by those such as Dr. John Ratey can we fully understand the potential of exercise as both a method of prevention and treatment of addiction.

For those who remain skeptical of the therapeutic value of exercise, consider for a moment any other proven and effective methods of treatment to addiction that are cheap, non-invasive, relieve mild depression, stimulate brain cell growth, and also trim your waistline – Still thinking?  That should be motivation enough to want to include exercise as part of your recovery!

For More Information on Exercise and Recovery

Can exercise help prevent addiction to drugs or alcohol? (June 2008) Lauran Neergaard, US Today.

Positive Addiction (1976) William Glasser

The Wellness-Recovery Connection (2004) John Newport

Healing Addiction with Yoga (2003) Annalisa Cunningham

Stretch & Surrender: A Guide to Yoga, Health, and Relaxation for People in Recovery (1992) Annalisa Cunningham

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