If you have a tendency toward addictive behavior it’s vital to develop some sort of consistent exercise habit, according to Dr. John Ratey. How much exercise you need depends, of course, on how severe the habit is. Dr. Ratey suggests thirty minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise five days a week as the bare minimum if you want to root out an addiction.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a compulsion that persists in spite of negative health and social consequences. Plenty of people use and abuse drugs, but only relatively few become addicts. Why? While dopamine in the reward center creates the initial interest in a drug or behavior and provides the motivation to get it, 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 behavior. The same changes occur regardless of whether the addiction is to drugs or gambling or eating. Once the reward has the brain’s attention, the prefrontal cortex instructs the hippocampus to remember the scenario and sensation in vivid detail. If it’s greasy food that you can’t resist, the brain links the aroma of Kentucky Fried Chicken to Colonel Sanders’s beard and that red and white bucket. Those cues take on salience and get linked together into a web of associations. Each time you drive up to KFC, the synaptic connections linking everything together get stronger and pick up new cues. This is how habits are formed.
Typically, when we learn something, the connections stabilize and the levels of dopamine tail off over time. With addiction, especially drug addiction, dopamine floods the system with each drug use, reinforcing the memory and pushing other stimuli further into the background.
If you suddenly quit drinking, for instance, you’re turning off the dopamine spigot and the hypothalamic- pituitary- adrenal axis gets thrown out of balance. Withdrawal puts the body in survival mode. The intense unpleasantness of withdrawal lasts for only a few days, but your system remains sensitive for much longer. If you’re in this delicate state and come under further stress, your brain interprets the situation as an emergency and sends you looking for more alcohol. That’s how a problem at work or a fight with a lover can cause a relapse. For someone who’s been dependant on drugs and has altered his dopamine system, the most effective solution to a stressful situation — and the only one he knows — is the drug.
But exercise is another solution because it elevates the dopamine, which then improves mood, motivation, feelings of wellness and attention. Chronic exercise increases dopamine storage in the brain and triggers the production of enzymes that create dopamine receptors in the reward center of the brain. If the demand is there, the dopamine genes get activated to produce more, and the overall effect is a more stable regulation of these pathways, which are important to controlling addictions.
Researchers looking at fetal alcohol syndrome have shown that exposing unborn rats to high levels of alcohol dramatically reduces the birth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. It also disrupts long- term potentiation (LTP), the cellular mechanism of learning and memory. Studies of adult rats exposed to alcohol before birth suggest that they have difficulty learning. The exciting news on this front is that both exercise and abstinence from alcohol not only stop the damage but also reverse it — increasing neurogenesis and thus regrowing the hippocampus of adult rats. The same holds true even for unborn rats if their mothers are taken off ethanol and allowed to run. In humans, researchers have recently shown that abstinence reverses some of the neuronal damage caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, and we already know that exercise rebuilds the alcoholic brain by increasing neurogenesis.
Dealing with addiction is similar to battling feelings of anxiety and depression as well: getting rid of the problem is only the first step. Once the addiction or the negative emotions are gone, the void needs to be filled with some positive behavior for the change to take root. There can hardly be a better option than physical exercise.
Exercise counteracts anxiety and depression directly and can have a huge impact on any form of addiction, as both of these mood states undermine treatment. A recovering addict who is feeling anxious or hopeless is much more likely to slip in her determination and ability to quit. People are more impulsive when they feel lousy.
Both strength training and aerobic exercise decrease symptoms of depression in recovering alcoholics and smokers who have quit. And the more fit you are, the more resilient you are. If you are flexible in managing stress, you’re less likely to reach for that bottle of liquor or bag of chips or pack of cigarettes. Keeping the stress system under control is also important, practically speaking, for ameliorating the physical symptoms of withdrawal, to get through those nightmarish first few days.
Exercise builds confidence. If the brain is flexible, the mind is stronger, and this gets at a concept known as self- effi cacy. It’s difficult to measure, but it relates to confidence in our ability to change ourselves.
For most addicts, if they stop to consider how they may be destroying their lives, they suddenly feel like they can’t handle anything, let alone their self- control over their addiction. Exercise, though, can have a powerful impact on the way an addict feels about himself. If he’s engaged in a new pursuit such as exercise, which involves work and commitment, and he’s able to follow through and be persistent with it, that sense of self- control spreads to other areas of his life.
As a treatment for addiction, exercise works from the top down in the brain, forcing addicts to adapt to a new stimulus and thereby allowing them to learn and appreciate alternative and healthy scenarios. It’s activity- dependent training, and while it may not provide the immediate rush of a snort of cocaine, it instills a more diffuse sense of well- being that, over time, will become a craving in its own right.
The inoculation against addiction works from the bottom up, physically blunting the urge to act by engaging the more primitive elements of the brain. Exercise builds synaptic detours around the well- worn connections automatically looking for the next fix.
“I strongly believe that exercise can serve as an antidote and as a type of inoculation against addiction. As an antidote, you’re giving the individual an avenue of life experience that most have not had – the goals of exercise, the feeling of exercise, the challenge of exercise, the pleasure and the pain, the accomplishment, the physical well-being, the self-esteem.
Inoculation ranks as equally important, given that most addicts fight a protracted, sometimes lifelong, battle with relapse. Exercise is directly antithetical to drug- addictive behavior. Because you need lung strength, muscle strength, mental acuity to engage in physical exercise — lots of things that drugs deprive you of. If you’re not eating, not caring about your body, letting it waste away, having your mind distorted by being constantly intoxicated, you can’t be a serious exerciser. You can’t do it.”
Peter Provet, Director, Odyssey House, a rehabilitation program in New York that treats about 800 residents at half a dozen locations throughout the city.