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How Competitive Sports Can Help You After Rehab

Activities To Help You In Your Recovery

The exhilaration of participating in a competitive sport cannot be denied. Whether it’s angling to win that tennis match or playing to win your league’s softball championship, the exercise, camaraderie, and fun of it all is often unforgettable.

Engaging in competitive sports is especially beneficial during addiction recovery. Here’s why.

It Can Take Your Mind Off Of Addiction

When you’re out on the field, in the pool, on the court, or in the arena, chances are your mind will be wrapped up in the activity at hand, not focused on how and where you’ll pick up again.

In 2011, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) took this notion further by investing $4.3 million in research on the relationship between exercise and overcoming addiction. As the NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., says, “Staff scientists are considering the possibility that exercise—including active play, outdoor adventure, team sports, martial arts, and dance—not only boosts energy and keeps weight in check but also helps prevent substance abuse.” Part of that is due to the action itself—chasing a ball across a soccer field may prevent the obsessive thoughts that frequently surround using—but it also has to do with the impact exercise has on your actual brain function.

It Offers a Natural High

Years of using may lead some people to forget about the positive, even wonderful feelings that often emerge when playing sports and exercising in general. And yet, doing something physical spurs reactions in the brain that are similar to the “high” that may be experienced through using drugs and alcohol.

“Although people tend to think of exercise as good for the body,” Volkow says, “it also benefits the brain. As it invigorates the heart and lungs, it stimulates the brain’s reward pathway and heightens mood-boosting neurochemicals”—the same neurochemicals, primarily dopamine and serotonin, that are impacted by drugs and alcohol. It’s called “runner’s high” for a reason!

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It Fosters Community

For some, it’s common knowledge that isolation is at the crux of addiction—an idea that was reinforced by the “Rat Park” study conducted in the 1970s, which demonstrated that social and environmental conditions (namely, solitude) may render one more vulnerable to drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.

Competitive sports help with this dilemma. By joining a team or participating in a sport like tennis, archery, or swimming, you will be surrounded by people who celebrate physical strength and strive for mental clarity. The stronger one’s sober social network is, the greater their chances of finding—and maintaining—abstinence. Take it from Volkow: “Initiation of substance abuse may also be countered by the support of teammates, coaches, and family” and “by other social aspects of participation in organized activities.”

It Cultivates Body Awareness

Our connection to our physical state is often severed when using or abusing drugs or alcohol. Desensitized, and in the throes of addiction, we may neglect to listen to our bodies and take care of ourselves.

Competitive sports, on the other hand, tend to have the opposite effect. When asked to perform—for ourselves or for our team—we feel the need to be in top physical performance, and we take care to hear our body out when it’s tired, hungry, stiff, or sore. Cultivating this body awareness may decrease our risk of relapse during addiction recovery, as the more attuned we are to our body, the less inclined we are to harm it.

It Reduces Stress

True—competitive sports aren’t without their fair share of stress, but the small bursts of positive stress one experiences when playing for a team or for themselves can be a boon for the brain and body; it bolsters brainpower, promotes resilience, and encourages immunity. Further, exercise in itself decreases stress, which is commonly thought of as one of the leading precursors of relapse.

Through exercise’s “actions on hormones that affect the nervous system,” Volkow writes, exercise improves “tolerance of stress—an observation that is particularly intriguing given the links between stress and drug abuse.”

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