Fitbit May Help Women Go the Distance in Recovery

Fibits and SobrietyCan a Fitbit help women in recovery from alcoholism stay sober? Researchers at the National Institutes of Health think so and have just begun a study to prove it.

The federal organization is testing the wearable devices on women suffering from alcoholism and depression because, it says, little attention has been given to developing “physical activity interventions in this unhealthy, at-risk population.”

The project is being led by researchers at Butler Hospital in Rhode Island, who say that providing Fitbits to women will give them a tool to use “in the moment” to cope with negative emotions and alcohol cravings during early recovery when relapse risk is highest.

The project will recruit 50 women who will be given the exercise trackers to wear for 12 weeks, throughout which time they will also receive counseling sessions by phone and supportive emails.

“Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. and are associated with significant economic burden and health-related negative consequences,” the grant for the project reads. “While women may be less likely to develop AUDs, they experience more significant negative health consequences of alcohol use than men. Due to stigma, shame and child care issues, women are less likely to receive specialty addiction treatment.”

More so than men, women with alcohol use disorders report drinking to regulate their emotions. The researchers believe alternate coping strategies like exercise can help women stay firmly rooted in their recovery.

A similar study also underway is developing a smartphone app called “Fit&Sober,” which is designed to get alcoholics to focus on the immediate rewards of exercise, such as improved mood and decreased cravings.

Why Exercise Is Crucial in Recovery

When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, the chemicals that make us feel pleasure and reward. These are the same endorphins your body releases when you drink alcohol. That phenomenon makes it difficult for heavy drinkers to stop because the brain has learned that drinking is important and compels the person to continue. When an alcoholic stops drinking, endorphin levels crash — you actually have less than you did before because the brain stopped producing endorphins due to the oversupply from alcohol. Among the reasons that exercise is critical during treatment and recovery from addiction is because it helps rebuild the natural levels of endorphins in the brain.

Working Out Reduces Cravings

A recent study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Treatment, found that regular aerobic exercise curbs alcohol cravings and consumption among those who are in the early stages of recovery. Even a short, brisk walk can significantly reduce cravings among heavy drinkers. The same holds true for smokers. Research has found that they too experience less intense cravings and fewer withdrawal symptoms after a workout. Back in 2010, another study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, found that cocaine-dependent rats had reduced cravings for the drug after exercise due to changes in their brain chemistry brought about by the exercise.

The really good news is that recent research shows aerobic exercise may help mitigate the damage done to the brain from alcohol abuse. According to researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, regular exercise was related to less damage to the brain’s connective tissue, or white matter, among heavy drinkers than those who drank but did not exercise much.

“What our data suggest is that beyond just giving people a different outlet for cravings or urges for alcohol, exercise might also help to repair the damage that may have been done to the brain,” said study co-author Angela Bryan in a news release. “It might even be a more promising treatment approach for alcohol problems because it is both a behavioral treatment and a treatment that has the potential to make the brain more healthy. The healthier the brain is, the more likely a person with alcohol issues is to recover.”

‘Meditation in Motion’

The Mayo Clinic describes exercise as “meditation in motion,” which suggests that by focusing on the physical we can experience the mental and emotional benefits of meditation. After a bike ride or several laps in the pool, the day’s irritations seem to melt away. This focus on a single task, and the resulting sense of relaxation and optimism, can make recovery much more manageable.

The Payoff

Heavy drinking has led to some 88,000 deaths and 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year in the U.S. from 2006 to 2010, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 30 years. Of course, exercise is no cure-all for alcoholism, but it can go a long way in helping people achieve lasting sobriety. We know that heavy drinkers tend to have sedentary lifestyles. It’s exciting to think about their futures if the Fitbit or smartphone app can help make exercise a regular part of recovery.

Posted on July 11th, 2016

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