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Exercise: Sobriety Saver or Replacement Addiction?

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If you’re an addict in recovery, or even if you’re not, odds are you’ve heard it said that it’s unhealthy to simply replace one addiction with another. 

You aren’t drinking, but you’ve taken up smoking. Or caffeine.

You’re not smoking cigarettes, but you’re vaping.

You’re not using drugs, but you’re having more frequent sexual encounters.

These are all common (and there are so many more where these came from) behaviors in recovering addicts. Where there’s a void from the addiction that drove you to pursue recovery in the first place, you attempt to fill it. And it’s a big void to fill. 

Let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s 2020 definition of addiction:

A compulsive, chronic, physiological. or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence

Compulsive. Habit-forming. Symptoms upon withdrawal or abstinence. Is there any activity that’s healthy, or at least not seriously unhealthy, when any of those properties can be ascribed to it?

Plenty of recovering addicts choose exercise as a navigational beacon to keep them on the straight and narrow. What about that? If that’s “replacing one addiction with another,” should you be wary of it?

Author and musician Mishka Shubaly wrote about quitting alcohol with the help of long-distance running, and without medical or AA support in his book The Long Run. Groups like The Phoenix and Boston Bulldogs Running Club unite individuals who share the common ground of addiction recovery and provide a support network and outlet for channeling energy into healthier activities like CrossFit, yoga, hiking, and, of course, running. 

And it seems to help. Empirically, the scientific data regarding exercise as a proven helper in recovery is still incomplete, but articles and studies galore are pointing in that direction. Meanwhile, a healthy workout routine sure doesn’t seem to hurt sobriety.

Could Exercise Become Your New Addiction? Like, in a Bad, “Fits the Definition of Addiction” Way?

Exercise can go south if the conditions are right – and as a recovering addict, you may be more susceptible to addictive behaviors, especially if you’re trying to find and rebuild a new social network and emotional outlet. Very few people meet the traditional criteria for addiction when it comes to exercise, but if your exercise routine starts to look more like this (and you can apply this general idea to any other activity), it’s time to take a step back:

“… Exercise addiction is maladaptive, so instead of improving a person’s life, it causes more problems…can threaten health, causing injuries, physical damage due to inadequate rest, and in some instances (particularly when co-occurring with an eating disorder), malnutrition and other problems.

… It is persistent…too much and for too long without giving the body a chance to recover. …people with exercise addiction exercise for hours every day, regardless of fatigue or illness. As the individual’s principle way of coping with stress, they experience anxiety, frustration, or emotional discomfort if they are unable to do so” (Harney, Elizabeth, Ph.D).

Bottom line: we view exercise as a beneficial part of sobriety–but not the sole key. The chemicals, the practice of treating your body with respect, the setting and meeting of goals–it all helps. Treating yourself with respect helps. 


Hartney, Elizabeth, Ph.D. (2019). The Risks of Having an Exercise Addiction. VeryWell   Mind, 25 October, 2019.

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Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

Addiction Recovery

Relapse Prevention


August 18, 2021