The Importance of Fitness in Addiction and Mental Health Recovery

Quite simply, the familiar act of exercise certainly has a positive impact on our minds, as well as our bodies. When we participate in some form of fitness, whether it be walking, running, or swimming, it’s proven to provide great benefits to our mental health across varying age groups across the UK and beyond. Incredibly, studies have shown a 20% to 30% lower risk of depression and dementia for adults participating in physical activity – it’s certainly a worthwhile exercise!

So, who am I? My name is John Gillen, I’m the director of one the UK’s leading residential rehab centres with a former alcohol addiction. Like many others, my alcohol dependency began to get out of control, ruining my relationships with friends and family, negatively effecting my performance at work, and damaging my physical and psychological health. One day I woke up and made the best decision I’ve ever made for myself and everyone around me, I asked for help.

Upon visiting a rehabilitation treatment centre, I was successfully treated for my alcohol addiction utilising a wide variety of methods, a big aspect of which was regular fitness. Leading rehab centres are taking advantage of the benefits exercise brings to their evidence-based rehab and detox programmes. Regular fitness is extremely effective as it focuses on healing your mind and body to achieve long-lasting recovery from addiction. These centres demonstrate a vast number of people who have benefitted from regular exercise combined with healthy nutrition which has significantly supported their recovery process.


Sadly, substance misuse is a common side effect of mental health issues. Exercising can be a great distraction for those who are struggling, as well as significantly reducing those undesirable cravings. I’m delighted to see more and more individuals now benefiting from regular exercise as an integral aspect of their addiction or mental health treatment. Participating in regular fitness has even been proven to help prevent the development of mental health problems, as well as improving your overall quality of life. What have you got to lose?


Exercise has fantastic benefits, here’s a few:


- Physical activity brings great stress relief that can ease addiction symptoms

- Improves your life expectancy

- Encourages weight loss which of course improves your self-esteem and confidence

- You’ll feel more energetic as your body gets stronger

- You’ll experience enhanced productivity and a better quality of life

- You will find yourself sleeping better, resulting in a well-rested morning rather than feeling tired and irritated

- Your mood will improve significantly as endorphins stimulate your brain making you feel more relaxed

- Even after low to moderate exercise such as walking or stretching, your mind will feel much clearer, allowing you to refocus your thinking patterns away from addiction

- These same endorphins sharpen your mind, improving your memory and concentration


I can’t emphasise enough how all of the above greatly contributes towards your journey to recovery; physical activity is incredibly important in many aspects of life.


My interest in wanting to know more on the causes of addiction grew and grew which encouraged me to educate myself on psychology and spirituality. This gave me a better understanding of how addiction develops and how it can best be treated, of which fitness is a vital part of this recovery. I continue to emphasise this as exercise is so often overlooked when trying to improve your mental well-being. You may not realise that in the UK our GP’s are now approving exercise as part of a treatment plan to tackle depression and anxiety. Research shows that we feel much more positive, content and calm after exercising as opposed to periods of inactivity such as watching TV or sitting at a desk. I learnt to appreciate from my own experience that addiction and mental health are extremely complex struggles, regular fitness is just one of many vital aspects of your journey to recovery.


Have you ever wondered what actually goes on inside your body and mind during and after physical exercise?

- You’re developing your muscles and exerting the build-up of natural energies.

- You’re stimulating your central nervous system, releasing endorphins which then suppress your perception of pain and improve your mood

- Serotonin is then released into your bloodstream which gives you that happy and content feeling

- Frequent fitness also helps to release melatonin and cortisol which balance your hormones responsible for suppressing or increasing your appetite. This means you’ll be able to better regulate your food intake to decrease the likelihood of eating disorders.


Whether it’s indoors or outdoors, individually or in a team, or mild or high intensity, it’s important to find the physical activity which best suits you. There are some simple ways to slowly begin adding physical activity into your daily regime which will help to improve your mental health or addiction recovery. If you’re new to exercise, it’s completely reasonable to begin with some slow stretching throughout the day. You may want to then add in a few 10-minute bursts of jogging or take a short walk on your lunch break. I also find it can really help to get yourself a workout buddy where you motivate each other to achieve your goals. To achieve the best results in the fastest time, you could also join a gym and follow a tailored workout programme led by a professional coach. All of this gets you on the right path to achieving long-term recovery from addiction and mental health issues, and it all starts with getting you active.


I want to encourage people to utilise exercise as the extremely valuable tool that it is. If like I was, you or a loved one is struggling to overcome addiction or mental health issues, then get started on incorporating essential exercise therapy into your daily regime.


Fitness truly does play an incredibly important role in addiction and mental health recovery. Just look at my journey from alcohol addict, to now, educating others on the importance of fitness in addiction and mental health recovery. There’s no better time than now to lead a happier, healthier life free from addiction. I hope to inspire you to exercise more by reading up on these unexpected ways that working out can benefit you today.

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