Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.~ Dean Karnazes
Running provides many benefits to anyone interested in maintaining their good health. But, running could just be the perfect option for someone in recovery from addiction.
Running has been proven to be effective in helping those recovering from substance use disorders.
Re-lacing the brain
Scientists still aren’t sure why certain people who experiment with drugs and alcohol become addicted while others don’t. Many point to an imbalance in dopamine (the feel-good brain chemical) and a deregulation of glutamate, the brain’s main excitatory (those that facilitate) neurotransmitter responsible for parts of our learning and memory.
Environment, genetics and stress are believed to play important roles, too. But a growing body of research suggests that aerobic exercise such as running can, in fact, rebalance those neurotransmitters, reduce sobriety-crushing cravings and even repair drug-damaged parts of the brain.
‘The studies are showing that there’s definitely an effect in the interaction between physical activity and the way that we respond to drugs,’ says Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US. ‘Some of the research has started to document the molecular mechanisms responsible for these interactions. That’s in the very early stages, but we don’t need to wait for all of the evidence, to cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s, before we can recommend it.’
Dr John Ratey has been preaching the lace-’em-up cure for years. The associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston says that even a little bit of running can make a big difference. ‘What happens immediately when you begin to run is you get a boost in dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, just as if you were taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,’ he says.
Ratey, a longtime runner who logs about 15 miles per week, and a psychiatrist who has counselled plenty of people with addictions, says quitting isn’t necessarily the hard part. It’s the maintenance of sobriety, which is too often undermined by stress, anxiety and depression, things that are rife in the newly sober life.
‘Many of the great [exercise] studies have been done on smokers because nicotine, which is really our toughest addiction, acts in a similar fashion to drugs of abuse by pumping up the dopamine system,’ says Ratey. ‘Smoking cravings are intense. One of the ways of dealing with them is to go for a run or a brisk 10-minute walk. Not only is that a positive activity, it changes the brain chemistry so you are much less responsive to stressors. It just is a fact. It takes more to stress you out than it did before running.’
There is no shortage of clinical and preclinical research to support Ratey’s views. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, US, set a dozen heavy-using cannabis smokers on treadmills and, over two weeks, got them to run ten 30-minute sessions at 60-70 per cent of their maximum heart rate. The result? A more than 50 per cent decrease in sparking up. Another study, led by Dr Michael Ussher at the University of London, showed that even as little as 10 minutes of moderate exercise dulled the craving for a drink among recently detoxed alcoholics. Research at the University of Colorado, US, even showed a possible reversal of cognitive brain damage in recovering alcoholics who exercised aerobically.
Your brain on running
A healthy brain releases pleasure-jolting dopamine when we engage in life-sustaining behaviours such as eating and sex. The good times are then encoded in regions that control memory, new learning, and motivation, ensuring that we continue to engage in these activities.
In this simple system, drugs and alcohol can act as gremlins opening floodwalls. Dopamine flows down the reward pathway, which we experience as euphoria. Then, just as the reward-motivated brain is programmed to function, it teaches us to repeat the behavior. For the predisposed, the mind begins to burn with a new central concern: another drink, the next score. At the same time, we start producing less dopamine naturally to compensate for the tide of outside stimuli. That means people with addictions need more rugs to achieve the same high, and eventually to simply stave off the pain and anguish of a dopamine dearth. Life becomes strictly about maintenance.
When a chronic user decides to quit and shuts off that external dopamine trigger, the brain is suddenly bereft and perceives survival to be at stake, just as if faced with a lack of food. With next to nothing going on in the pleasure-jolting department, the addict’s mind and body receive bright, desperate flares of craving. Throw in depression, a bad day at work or a memory trigger – something as small as the beads of moisture running down a bottle of beer – and you have a recipe for relapse.
It’s during the early days of abstinence that glutamate starts to rise and etch the directions for craving into the mind. A recovering addict who experienced heightened glutamate levels in withdrawal will see those beads rolling down the beer bottle and experience pangs of craving months, even years, after their last sip.
Making the Change
When one decides to stop using substances to give them fulfillment, naturally, they must find something else to fill that void. This is why running is the perfect antidote in recovery.
Many of those in addiction use substances to change the way they feel. If you use drugs long enough, they start to be your security blanket. They help you feel good about yourself. Once you remove these, you need something else. Running can provide this something else. Running provides the chemical responses, but also the physical changes that keep us going. We dare you to running a try and see if it doesn’t help with your new lifestyle.
a positive addiction needs to fill the following criteria:
- It is something uncompetitive that you choose to do.
- It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental effort to do it well.
- You can do it alone or rarely with others, but it does not depend upon others to do it.
- You believe it has some value (physical, mental or spiritual) for you.
- You believe that you will improve if you persist.
- You can do it without criticizing yourself.
- You become running itself.
- When I am running well, I am happy.
- Running is getting to know yourself in an extreme degree.
- There is nothing like the feel of your feet against the road, the pleasure of motion produced by your own body.
- Something takes over, not just you, but a sensation of movement.
- Worrying and running are impossible to do at the same time.
- A self-centered state develops in which you feel like a natural organism working very hard.
- Everything is floating around in your mind while running, including your problems, and sometimes a solution pops into your mind without effort.
- When I miss my workouts, I feel as though I have let myself down.
- I don’t have to worry about overeating.
- Lowered pulse rate and blood pressure.
- After the first mile, my subconscious takes over and my body functions automatically.
- There is something about most runners that makes them feel a little better than other people.
- The only things I don’t do more of now are watch TV, drink, and waste time in general.
- Runners think they have a better life because they run.
- Running gives me all the self-confidence I will ever need.
- It all seems so right with eternity, personally and collectively.
- Competition is the spice, running the main course.
- Thoughts become long, slow motion, drawn out.
- I feel lazy, lethargic, and cranky when I don’t run.
- For a while, the world completely stops while I am engaging with my run.
- I am frustrated, aggravated, hostile, irritable, and generally unpleasant when I miss a day’s run.
- Heightened awareness of light, temperature, odors, sometimes an inexpressible joy.
- I don’t need as much sleep.
- I feel the so-called happy, warm feeling or glow.
- It is as if my mind is floating beside my body, looking at it in a humorous way, watching it struggle to run while it (the mind) is free-floating along, ahead of it, behind it, below it, above it.
- It is best to run in a peaceful natural place.
- I float. I run like a deer. I feel good. I feel high. I don’t think at all.
- Brain chatter is gone.
- I am more open with people and my interpersonal habits or skills have improved.
- I am much less serious, far more easy-going, less committed to abolishing all the evils overnight, and easier to live with.
- Everyone should run. It would drown hate, and aggression, make people happier and create a greater sense of self-worth.
We were not born to sit around. We were born to be active. If you are positively addicted to what you do, you will live a long life and enjoy every moment.
Think about running. It could make a difference in your life.