17 May Exercise: The Magic Bullet for Depression and Substance Abuse?

Most people make a new year’s resolution to exercise more, which is why fitness studios market for annual passes in January. This indicates that people are already aware that exercise is good for them. While it is important for physical health, being active is as beneficial for our minds. Some of the chemicals released in the brain during include: dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.

Physical Exertion Produces a Healthy High

Even though it may be hard to motivate at times, people feel better after they exercise. Exercise activates dopamine release in the brain. Dopamine triggers the reward system in the brain, making us feel happy.  Many drugs, including amphetamines such as Adderall, ecstasy, or meth, also release dopamine in the brain. If we can get our dopamine fix from playing soccer or lifting weights, it suppresses the urge to use drugs to get that feeling.
Exercise also releases opioid and a cannabinoid chemical in the brain. These are the same chemicals contained in heroin and marijuana, hence the term “runner’s high.”

Treating Depression and Addiction with Exercise

There is a downward spiral of depression and drug use. Many people start using drugs to manage their depression. While substances may temporarily numb the depression, users feel even lower in the long run. This creates the spiral towards addiction with stronger underlying depression.
Regular exercise can reverse the spiral by producing endorphins and serotonin. Both of these chemicals, when released in the brain, are connected to well-being. People who adopt consistent exercise habits report a significant lessening of their depression symptoms. In some studies, they have found exercise to be more effective than the class of antidepressants known as SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors).
Getting in better shape, both mentally and physically, can fight both depression and addiction. When you combine exercise with mindfulness and healthy eating, your brain will pay you back in spades with optimal mental health and resilience.

How to Start

People who already struggle with depression find it hard to stay active, even when they know it’s good for them. For someone who is very depressed, it may be necessary to start with medication. The medication can get someone to the point where they can motivate to exercise. Another common trap is that people start with lofty goals and then find themselves slipping back into old habits.
 
New habits stick better when you are held accountable for your plans. When our friends know our intentions, they can hold us to them. When we have a bet or a contract with a workout partner, we are much more likely to stick to it than if we try to go it alone. People are notorious for letting themselves off the hook when no one is around to push them. A fitness coach’s primary function is to hold their clients accountable to show up and try hard.
Remember, exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. Choose something that you like doing. Physical activity can include anything from skateboarding to dance, to Cross Fit. Join a group or team, find a local running club, or sign up for dance lessons. An added benefit of joining a group of some kind is the social connection. Connecting with others is an essential ingredient for getting through depression and addiction.

Treatment for Teen and Young Adult Depression and Substance Abuse

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction and any underlying mental health issues, professional help is available. Sandstone Care incorporates regular exercise into our programs. We use a holistic approach to treating both substance abuse issues and co-occurring disorders like depression. Call today to start your healing process.
Additional Resources:
Rowan Hill
Rowan.Hill@SandstoneCare.com

Rowan is the man behind the weekly blog posts. He also manages the content on our website and performs a wide range of administrative duties. He can often be found at our front desk looking for meaning on a screen. Rowan worked for a wilderness therapy company as a field guide and family services guide for the last 4 years and will start his masters in social work in August 2017 as a part-time student. He loves to get outside to backcountry ski or rock climb when time permits.