Fighting an Epidemic With Exercise? A Unique Angle for Opioid Addiction Recovery

Exercise is one of the most popular and effective ways of maintaining personal health and productivity. Not only is this a popular industry, but it’s also a highly profitable one. According to a report published in November 2022, the global fitness industry is valued at over $87 billion, and almost 40% of Americans have some kind of gym membership. 

People understand the value of exercise, but how does this relate to drug addiction, specifically opioids? Here’s what you should know about the connection between exercise and opioid addiction.

Understanding the Opioid Epidemic 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the opioid epidemic officially began in the 1990s and occurred in three specific waves. The first wave involved mainly prescription and semi-synthetic opioid overdose deaths. This also includes the time frame of the notorious drug OxyContin, which eventually went on to control one-third of the entire pharmaceutical market in the United States. 

The second wave of the opioid epidemic began in 2010, largely attributed to the increase in overdose deaths involving heroin. Finally, the third wave officially began in 2013, and many observers say this wave is ongoing. That’s because the third wave was the explosion of drug lacing and overdose deaths related to the highly potent opioid fentanyl

In fact, the fentanyl threat has grown to such a high degree that 2022 marked the first year of the official Fentanyl Awareness Day in the United States. One could argue that since fentanyl is a favorite drug used for lacing all varieties of illicit drugs, it has overtaken the entire illicit drug supply. Even if someone does not want to use opioids, the rate of fentanyl lacing alone makes the guarantee of avoiding opioids virtually impossible. With a lethal dosage of fentanyl as low as 2 mg, the danger of opioids is far from a thing of the past. 

What Role Exercise Plays

It might surprise you to know that the body has a natural opioid system. This is how the body deals with pain, reward, and even addictive behaviors. Its opioid receptors interact naturally with the opioid substances we produce, but this also explains why opioid drugs interact in such a potent way in the body; they are acting on the receptors, part of its endogenous opioid system that is already present. However, in the process, opioids end up manipulating the body’s natural process, blocking its pain receptors and increasing one’s dependence on the drug because of its effect on the brain’s reward system.

What does this have to do with exercise, though? The answer can be found in a series of studies comparing opioid-dependent animals and humans. Clair Twark, M.D., notes in Harvard Health Publishing that activities such as running and swimming can help combat the voluntary consumption of opioids. While the exact relationship between exercise and opioid dependence is an ongoing debate, a few things can shed light on the value of treating opioid addiction with exercise. 

First, exercise can boost the body’s endorphins. Not only are endorphins part of the body’s natural pain-relieving response, but they are also responsible for the body’s reward system. These are also the things that opioid use distorts and manipulates, making exercise a natural and powerful way to kickstart the body’s natural pain and reward systems. As the exercise becomes the mechanism where these natural processes occur, it can decrease the addictive potential of opioids and their manipulation of the brain’s association with pain and reward.

Besides kickstarting the repair process through our endorphins, exercise can also help to combat a fascinating statistic regarding many who are addicted to opioids: a deficiency in Vitamin D. Vitamin D is naturally produced in the body when we are exposed to sunlight. 

This fresh air activity can help to turn the tide of the opioid epidemic, according to David Fisher, M.D., Ph.D. According to Fisher’s research, a Vitamin D deficiency makes individuals 50% more likely to use opioids. This percentage increases to 90% for those who have a severe deficiency. This deficiency intensifies the craving for opioids, which consequently increases the risk of developing an addiction.  

The Mental Battle

Besides the physical benefits of exercise as a combative effort against opioid addiction, there is also the added benefit of improving mental health. Exercise is a proven method to help reduce anxiety and depression, two symptoms directly related to opioid addiction and opioid withdrawal symptoms. If these points are added together, it seems that exercise and sunlight in combination can influence the body’s endorphins and ability to produce vitamin D. The added benefit of reducing anxiety and depression is another crucial piece of the puzzle that can help make a difference during the recovery process.

To be clear, the idea is not that opioid addiction can be solved by going for a jog outside. Instead, the point is to show that combating the opioid drug epidemic is not simply a matter of detoxing but also the positive and influential practices of helping our body to repair itself. Exercise is a crucial part of the puzzle, but it is just one piece of a comprehensive plan that should involve a dedicated team of medical professionals to help walk you or a loved one through the complex nature of opioid addiction. If you or someone you know is dependent on or addicted to opioids, it’s time to take the next step (or jog) toward recovery.