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The Importance of Exercise for Mental Health and Recovery

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Last Updated on April 2, 2024 by Carol Gillette

Exercise for Mental Health and Recovery

Ceasing use of prescription medications, alcohol, or illicit drugs is a difficult journey for most people who embark upon it. Still, everyone is unique, and the process comes with challenges, limitations, and nuances specific to the individual. Among the most important components of treatment and recovery is developing a holistic, personalized treatment plan that accounts for far more than just the symptoms of addiction or toxicity but also the root causes behind them.
Let exercise make a difference you can feel!

importance of exercise
The successful outcomes of our clients are why we remain so enthusiastic about treatment at Alternative to Meds Center. Exercise and good mental health are joined at the hip, yet many have overlooked these benefits or simply not been told about them. Exercise is a valuable part of a recovery program. Read on to find out exactly why it’s so important!
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Why Pharmaceutical Drugs Aren’t the Only Solution

Though medication can have a place in alleviating the symptoms of some physical or mental health conditions, it is far from the only solution that should be considered. Often, any benefits of taking the medication could be outweighed by harmful side effects that may arise, especially when the medication is taken long-term. In addition, many medications should not be stopped abruptly, meaning that even if you recognize their harmful effects, you must adjust your treatment plan to taper off the medication. For that reason, alternative, holistic methodologies are an important way to treat toxicity, addiction, and mental health symptoms without causing more issues.

It is critical to address your mental and physical health while you examine their root causes. Fortunately, many holistic treatment methodologies and adjunctive therapies can also serve as coping strategies that actually support mental health during recovery. One such strategy, exercise, is good for not only physical health but mental health as well.

An early Public Health Report suggested the positive impacts of exercise on mental health and described how regular exercise could help alleviate symptoms of depression.1 As a result of this and other impactful research, holistic treatment centers like Alternative to Meds Center firmly believe in the power of exercise during recovery.

How Physical Health Is Adjacent to Mental Health

How Physical Health is helpful for your Mental Health

Exercise has a wide range of benefits, both physical and mental. These physical health benefits can help the brain stay healthy by improving blood flow, reducing your chances of disease and disorders, and boosting the body’s ability to produce critical neurotransmitters, improving your mental health at its most basic level. In addition, it’s important not to overlook the fact that most people find it much easier to maintain a positive mental state when they’re feeling their best. Here are some of the most important physical health benefits of exercise that can improve mental health, as well.

Building Strength

First and foremost, the more you perform safe, intentional exercise movements, the more your muscles will develop. For example, if you engage in moderate resistance or weight training on a regular basis, your muscles will renew and repair themselves and begin to change the way your body uses its energy. Not only will you improve your appearance (and build your self-esteem), but you’ll also increase your metabolism, help improve your bone density, manage your weight, and balance your blood sugar.2

Improved Cardiovascular Health

A similar effect occurs when you engage in cardiovascular exercise. Over time, the more you perform cardio exercises, the easier they will become and the more stamina you’ll build. You will be able to ramp up difficulty and duration to achieve better cardiovascular health. This can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, dangerous falls, and obesity, and improve your quality of life, mood, and cognitive function.3

Reduced Risk Factors

Exercise can help reduce the risk of certain disorders, including Type II diabetes and some cancers. It can also help you improve your immune system to fight off some infectious diseases. 3 In the case of COVID-19, a study showed that those adults who met basic physical activity requirements were less likely to be hospitalized for their illness.4 The same can be said for other breathing capacity illnesses, including pneumonia or flu. Those who get the recommended amount of exercise are significantly less likely to die from either illness.5

In addition, your muscles and bones play a crucial role in your ability to function in our day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, as you age, these two body systems are more susceptible to damage and deterioration. However, with regular exercise, your muscles are more likely to retain their strength and will continue to support your bones, eliminating many risk factors.

Pain Management and Mobility

If you’re someone who suffers from chronic health issues or a disability, remaining active within your limits can help you manage the pain and other complications that come along with these conditions. For example, arthritis pain can be managed more effectively if you remain active. Associated improvements in mobility can occur because joints are in better health or because of the reduced pain.6

It All Comes Together: Mental Health Through Physical Training

As mentioned, exercise has significant benefits for mental health, some of which stem from the improvements found in physical health. For example, being active can help to improve your self-esteem, not just by losing weight but also by helping your brain and body stay productive and occupied. You’ll feel better about yourself and your improved physical capabilities, and you’ll develop a positive habit that can help you keep your physical and mental health in check.

For those with anxiety and depression, many studies have shown a positive correlation between exercise and improved mental health.7 Researchers attribute this to multiple factors, including:

  • The endorphins released during exercise
  • Improved blood flow
  • The meditative qualities of repetitive movement
  • Distraction from stress and life issues
  • Improved self-efficacy
  • Opportunities for social interaction,
  • And more

Where Do Recovery and Exercise Overlap?

Where Exercise and Recovery Overlap

There are obvious mental and physical health improvements that occur through exercise, as outlined above. When it comes to recovery, exercise can help increase the likelihood of success for many individuals. There are several overarching reasons that this is the case: it becomes a new hobby, forms a new routine, creates a reduction in cravings, reduces stress levels, and can assist with sleep routines.

Exercise as a Hobby for Recovery

Individuals in recovery must form new hobbies and healthy habits to occupy their time and replace unhealthy ones. For that reason, it is not uncommon to see exercise as a hobby that does much more than keep the mind occupied. Exercise can help to provide those in recovery with a new sense of self and access to a community of people with similar goals.

Exercise as a Healthy Routine

With exercise, you can create a new routine. Rather than turning to medication, you can turn to exercise. Routines also help give you some much-needed structure to help you make the best of your day. You can choose to go to the gym at a set time each day, or you can join a class or two where you’ll be held accountable for your attendance. You get the opportunity to create a new routine that helps your physical and mental health rather than harms it.

Reducing Cravings with Exercise

Cravings are a common feature of early recovery, but exercise can be an effective strategy for reducing them. Rather than focusing on or obsessing over using a particular substance and giving in to the craving to do so, regular exercise can serve as a distraction and craving reducer. As you become stronger and more committed to this new cause, your desire to use substances may decrease, making each day a little easier. In fact, as many as 40% of study participants reported a significant reduction in cravings after a short bout of moderate exercise.8

Exercise as a Stress Reducer

Unmanageable stress is a major reason people turn to medications, drugs, or alcohol in the first place. When people feel stressed, they’re much more likely to turn to substances to help. A major pillar of recovery is finding ways to reduce stress without substance use, including exercise. This is likely because exercise appears to change the way that the brain responds to stress by affecting the brain’s production of serotonin and dopamine.9

Exercise Assists with Sleep

Sleep is important for maintaining both mental and physical health, but getting good sleep is especially vital for maintaining good mental health throughout recovery. While it’s difficult to operate at a high level any time you haven’t had adequate sleep, withdrawals can make it difficult for you to get decent sleep when you’re facing the earliest stages of recovery. Fortunately, a compilation of studies demonstrated that regular exercise can improve the duration of sleep and the quality of sleep in those individuals who get regular exercise. Additionally, those who engaged in regular exercise also experienced improvements in heart rate and more restorative sleep.10

Exercises that Help with Recovery

Different types of exercise to help with recovery

While there are many different types of exercise, ATMC offers a few specific varieties that may be particularly beneficial for people in recovery.

Group Exercise

Engaging in a class or other group event can be beneficial in a few different ways. First, it gives you a community of others to meet and socialize with. These people often share similar goals and hobbies, enhancing mental health benefits. Exercise can also help to hold you accountable for attendance, goals, and everything in between.


Hiking can offer you a unique sense of accomplishment that many avid hikers say they only experience when completing a particularly challenging hiking trail. In addition, many studies show that engaging with nature and spending time outdoors actually improves your overall mental health by reducing stress. 11 You can enjoy hiking with a group of supportive friends as there are a vast number of nearby hiking trails easily accessed near ATMC for a customized experience every time.


Yoga is a particularly beneficial form of exercise for people in recovery. Not only is it an effective, gentle way to exercise the body, but it also has meditative properties that can be beneficial for mental health. Yoga focuses on being present and on letting the outside world go, which aligns well with mindfulness techniques often practiced in recovery.


Qigong is another gentle form of exercise that can be useful for recovery. It allows you to not only engage in simple movements anyone can perform but also mindfulness. Its repetitive movements can help create a meditative effect, promoting a focus that can be incredibly important to connect all the different parts of yourself, mind, soul, and body.

Running or Walking

These two exercises feature repetitive movements and also promote venturing out in nature. In addition, they are naturally conducive to achievement and advancement. Walking is a low-impact exercise that nearly anyone can perform. Over time, you can gradually work your way up to running if you choose. This progression gives you a goal to focus on and progress toward and is very popular at ATMC..

Incorporate Exercise Into Your Recovery Program

How important it is to incorporate exercise into your recovery

At Alternative to Meds Center, we recognize how important it is to develop healthy behaviors to replace the negative ones that contributed to substance use and medication toxicity. It is essential to utilize a holistic approach to discover the root causes of your mental health symptoms and address them without relying on harmful prescription medications. An individualized treatment plan focuses on your specific physical and mental health needs and ensures that you receive the recovery care that you require to restore wellness.

Exercise can be an important component of a holistic treatment plan so you can find recovery, maintain it, and go on to lead a fulfilling life. That’s why we offer not only psychiatric therapy, group therapy, and medication tapering but also neurotransmitter rehabilitation, spa therapies, nutrition, acupuncture, yoga, Qigong, and much more. We will work with you to create a personalized treatment plan to support the goal of freeing you from the substances that once ruled your life.

Alternative to Meds Center can help you achieve wellness and life-long recovery so that you can attain the freeing, fulfilling life that you deserve. Contact us today to learn more about our inpatient treatment program.


1. Taylor, C. B., Sallis, J. F., & Needle, R. (1985). The relation of physical activity and exercise to mental health. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), 100(2), 195–202. [Retrieved February 13, 2024]

2. Westcott, W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, 11(4), 209-216. [Retrieved February 13, 2023]

3. Agarwal, S. K. (2012). Cardiovascular benefits of exercise. International journal of general medicine, 541-545.[cited 2024 April 2]

4. Hill, A., et al, (2021). Brief Summary of Findings on the Association Between Physical Inactivity and Severe COVID-19 Outcomes. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 13, 2024 [cited 2024 April 2]

5. Webber, B., Yun, H., Whitfield, G., (2022). Leisure-time physical activity and mortality from influenza and pneumonia: a cohort study of 577 909 US adults, British Journal of Sports Medicine 57:1231-1237.

6. Parlar, S., Fadiloglu, C., Argon, G., Tokem, Y., & Keser, G. (2013). The Effects of Self–Pain management on the intensity of pain and pain management methods in arthritic patients. Pain Management Nursing, 14(3), 133-142.  [cited 2024 April 2]

7. Peluso, M. A. M., & De Andrade, L. H. S. G. (2005). Physical activity and mental health: the association between exercise and mood. Clinics, 60(1), 61-70.  [cited 2024 April 2]

8. Hallgren, M., Herring, M. P., Vancampfort, D., Hoang, M. T., Andersson, V., Andreasson, S., & Abrantes, A. M. (2021). Changes in craving following acute aerobic exercise in adults with alcohol use disorder. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 142, 243-249. [cited 2024 April 2] 

9. Jackson, E., (2013). STRESS RELIEF: The Role of Exercise in Stress Management. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 17(3):p 14-19  [cited 2024 April 2]  

10. Dolezal, B., Neufeld, E., Boland, D., Martin, J., Cooper, C., (2017). Interrelationship between Sleep and Exercise: A Systematic Review, Advances in Preventive Medicine, vol. 2017 [cited 2024 April 2]

11. Bratman, G., et al, (2019). Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Science Advances 5:7 [cited 2024 April 2]

This content has been reviewed and approved by a licensed physician.

Dr. Samuel Lee

Dr. Samuel Lee is a board-certified psychiatrist, specializing in a spiritually-based mental health discipline and integrative approaches. He graduated with an MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did a residency in psychiatry at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He has also been an inpatient adult psychiatrist at Kaweah Delta Mental Health Hospital and the primary attending geriatric psychiatrist at the Auerbach Inpatient Psychiatric Jewish Home Hospital. In addition, he served as the general adult outpatient psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente.  He is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology and has a B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Religion from Pacific Union College. His specialty is in natural healing techniques that promote the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

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