Posted on Oct 18, 2021, 4 p.m.
Exercise is an integral part of the global economy. Before COVID-19, the fitness industry finished 2019 with a record $96.7 billion in revenue and almost 200 million members worldwide. These numbers are expected to return and even increase over time as more gyms and public places reopen for business.
While exercise is a popular activity for helping people lose weight or stay healthy, there is a particular group of people that can benefit from making exercising a regular part of their lives: those struggling with opioid addiction.
Understanding the Opioid Epidemic
The phrase “opioid epidemic” is used to describe the rapid increase in addiction and/or overdose due to opioid use in the United States. Some people date this epidemic to the debut of extended-release versions of older opioids such as morphine in 1985. However, many experts agree that the epidemic formally began in 1995 when the FDA approved Purdue Pharma’s notorious drug, OxyContin.
In 2007, Purdue pled guilty to fraudulently marketing OxyContin and the company agreed to pay $600 million in fines. This marketing scandal had to do with downplaying and misleading both doctors and patients about the addictive nature and potency of opioids. However, the damage had been done.
After almost three decades of approved opioid prescriptions, the latest numbers do not indicate a downward trend. Over 10.1 million people misused prescription opioids from 2019 to 2020, with almost 50,000 reported overdose fatalities. Plus, these statistics only account for synthetic opioids, not street opioids like heroin.
Why Exercise is Beneficial to Opioid Addiction
While the human body has its own natural opioid system that regulates pain by producing endorphins, prescription or street opioids subvert the natural process. When opioids are taken, they conflate the reward system in the brain by blocking pain receptors and building an increased dependency on the drugs. The resulting euphoric experience is why so many people find themselves trapped in addiction.
So how is exercise beneficial to this problem? Four-time Ironman Triathlon finisher and medical doctor Clair Twark highlights two studies about opioid-dependent animals and humans with encouraging results. The animal studies showed that activities like swimming and running directly combated voluntary opioid consumption. Another experiment featured 38 men and women who exercised three times a week for two to six months. Twenty of them completed the exercise commitment and shared their results the following year with five reporting continued abstinence and ten reporting a significant decrease in substance use.
Since exercise boosts the body’s endorphins, which opioids mimic, this strategy is very useful in restarting the body’s natural production of opioids for people who have grown dependent on drugs.
But exercise not only helps to rebuild the body’s natural opioid production, it’s also great for overall mental health. One academic study praised exercise as “a unique strategy that may help individuals with opiate dependence cope with stressors.” Since coping with mental health issues is a common cause of opioid use, exercise can serve as a way to find lasting freedom.
Breaking Free, Professionally and Supplementally
It goes without saying that there are numerous benefits to exercise and combating opioid addiction is a significant addition to the list. Since opioids interfere with the body’s natural ability to process pain, rewards, and the various coping mechanisms, exercise is one answer that can join the fight of once again living free and facing life head-on.
But in many cases, the self-treatment of stimulation from endorphins achieved through exercise isn’t enough to handle chronic opioid addiction. In fact, it is highly recommended that opioid detox should be done with medical and professional assistance, because tapering off opioids too quickly could result in dangerous withdrawal symptoms including hallucinations, seizures, and heart rate issues.
For these reasons, exercise is recommended as a supplemental approach to combating opioid addiction, but it can have lasting positive effects on the health and freedom of those who commit to it.
This article was written by Kevin Morris from the Delphi Behavioral Health Group, a dedicated family of facilities committed to offering individualized treatment for all levels of addiction working to treat it at its core to provide those suffering with the tools to start a journey of long-lasting recovery.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.
Content may be edited for style and length.
Materials provided by:
The Global Health and Fitness Association (IHRSA). (n.d.). The 2020 IHRSA Global Report. Retrieved from https://www.ihrsa.org/publications/the-2020-ihrsa-global-report/
National Center for Biotechnology (2017, July 13). Pain Management and the Opioid Epidemic: Balancing Societal and Individual Benefits and Risks of Prescription Opioid Use. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK458654/#:~:text=In%20the%20late%201980s%20and,)%20(OxyContin%2C%201995).
Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). The Opioid Epidemic: Who’s to Blame? Doctors or Big Pharma? https://delphihealthgroup.com/opioids/opioid-epidemic-blame/
Stat News (2019, January 15). A Blizzard of Prescriptions: Documents reveal new details about Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin. Retrieved from https://www.statnews.com/2019/01/15/massachusetts-purdue-lawsuit-new-details/
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