How We Can Exercise Away Addiction and Depression


Teenagers playing frisbee

(Psychology Today) Exorcise addictive and depressive demons the way celebrities do — with exercise. You’ve probably heard how many famous people have chosen exercise to effectively prevent and even treat mental health problems like addictions and depression. This is because exercise helps support and normalize mood-stabilizing neurochemicals like dopamine and glutamate, as well as serotonin.

Brain Chemicals Generated by Exercise

One key neurochemical that may not trip off your tongue is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is a protein in the brain and spinal cord that is vital for developing and maintaining the central nervous system (CNS). BDNF is especially concentrated in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain. This substance promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by helping growth, maturation, and maintenance. It also helps control synaptic plasticity — the ability of brain connections to change and adapt over time — and consequently is important for learning and memory. Low levels of BDNF can cause difficulties in learning new things, as well as lead to depression and mood swings.

Strangely, exercise and using drugs of abuse act on similar parts of the brain. For example, each similarly activates the reward pathway, triggering the release of feel-good chemicals like serotonin and dopamine. This is another reason why people turn to drugs repeatedly. However, exercising itself may build up the amount of dopamine, regenerative proteins, and other synapses. As a result, these added connections increase the quantity of available dopamine and support other brain chemicals. The end result is feeling much better.

Eminem, Addiction, and Exercise

Intense physical exercise has received major attention as an effective way to reduce cravings and remain sober by celebrities like the rapper Eminem. In 2024, Em posted his annual updated AA pin on his social media account, where he reported being sober 16 years. He explained drugs had loomed large in his life after the release of his 1999 album, The Slim Shady LP. The singer didn’t think he had a problem; however, as his fame increased and drugs became more plentiful — especially on tour — Eminem realized he was battling addiction. Things were bad in 2000-2002 when he was taking Vicodin, Valium, and alcohol. The performer said he took “75 to 80 Valiums” a night.

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