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Exercising your way out of the habit hole.

by Grace Leung


Exercise is constantly advised for different health problems. In fact, the Mayo Clinic identifies weight control, improved mood and boosted energy as some benefits of exercise—but what’s not on the list is how it can change your life for the better, by curbing addictions.

Hard habit to break

According to Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, addiction is a "compulsive, uncontrollable dependence on a chemical substance, habit, or practice to such a degree that obtaining or ceasing use may cause severe emotional, mental, or physiologic reactions.”

The definition speaks volumes about the seriousness of having an addiction. The “uncontrollable dependence” may lead to disruptions in other aspects of one’s life, such as work and personal relationships. Quitting is the most logical route to take, but it’s not as easy as simply saying “no.”

The “severe reactions,” more popularly known as withdrawal symptoms, range from physical manifestations like tremors and stomach upsets to psychological effects such as depression and irrational anger. These can easily discourage an addict from quitting, especially if the alternative—repeating the addictive behavior—brings immediate pleasure.

Making the right moves

Quitting an addiction doesn’t only require determination; it may necessitate intervention and professional help.

Ronaldo Elepaño III, M.D., a consultation-liaison psychiatry fellow of The Medical City’s Department of Psychiatry, has handled various cases of addiction to substances such as alcohol, shabu, cocaine, marijuana and benzodiazepine. He has also dealt with behavioral addictions such as gambling, Internet and sex addiction. Elepaño says, “Addiction treatment must be tailored to the individual. One must assess the person's level of addiction and his or her willingness to change.”

He adds that a vital part of the treatment is exercise. “Aerobic exercise is generally indicated, but … [the patients] need to be appraised on their level of physical activity. If the person is used to doing household chores for instance, one may consider continuing that, [and then] add brisk walking to the regimen.”

Chappy Callanta, C.S.C.S., program director and head coach of 360 Fitness Club, suggests going for exercise routines and sports. “The thing to remember here is that a progressive routine is needed with realistic but challenging goals. With a proper exercise or sports program, the goal progresses every session, and that gives an addict something to aspire for. “

Why it works

Levi, 37, was hooked on drugs for almost seven years. Exercise became part of his recovery plan. “I consistently exercise by jogging, lifting weights, cycling and other sports. And I realize that even without any negative substances in my body, I experience a natural high,” he says.

According to Dr. Elepaño, “Exercise or physical activity can increase serotonin and correct dopamine imbalance, which are all implicated in addiction.” Serotonin is a brain chemical that is the key to mood regulation, as well as perception of hunger, fullness and pain. Dopamine is another chemical that has influences on brain function, including regulating pleasure. Another chemical connection may be the production of endorphins through exercise. Also known as “feel-good neurotransmitters,” endorphins can produce a high or an ecstatic feeling.

Although serious cases of addiction need professional help and treatment, “easier” cases can really benefit from engaging in physical activities. Read more about how others kicked their bad habits with exercise in the November issue of HealthToday magazine, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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