What Every Fitness Professional Needs to Know About Addiction


As personal trainers, we have a unique opportunity to work behind the scenes of the worst drug epidemic in our country’s history. You can positively impact individuals in recovery by teaching them how to use fitness as a tool for sobriety. As a bonus you’ll help communities grow stronger by strengthening the individual parts.


According to the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), drug overdose deaths have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States, surpassing the number of deaths by motor vehicles and firearms combined. With addiction rates on the rise people are becoming all too aware that it does not discriminate against any race, religion, or socioeconomic status.

Having personally overcome a battle with addiction, I can attest to the effectiveness of exercise during the recovery process. In fact, fifteen years ago, I was a high school dropout, 100 lbs overweight, attempting to kick a $10,000 a month drug habit, and getting ready to go to prison for four years. In other words, I was on the fast track to spending the rest of my life in prison or an early grave! Fitness not only played a major role during my recovery process, but also gave me a platform which would forever change my life.

In 2011, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defined addiction as a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry, and not merely a behavioral problem or simply the result of making the wrong choices. It is characterized by the inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that the relapse rate for drug addiction is 40 to 60 percent. Research indicates that exercise can reduce cravings and the risk of relapse by increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that gives a pleasurable sensation. Levels of dopamine also increase when drugs are used, and the increase in dopamine due to exercise can lead to an individual’s perception of reward and pleasure without using drugs.

Research also indicates that exercise can reduce levels of certain addiction-associated proteins, called extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) 1 and 2, by 32 to 42 percent. Regularly participating in a fitness program can improve mood and self-confidence, as well as provide a healthy environment to begin establishing a new contact sphere.

As with any special population there are several considerations which should be taken into account prior to beginning an exercise program. First and foremost, ensure you have a signed medical release from their physician. Individuals who have been using drugs for an extended period of time will potentially be facing significant health issues outside of our scope of practice. Additionally, we need to be aware that stress is the primary causation of addiction and/or relapse, and as fitness professionals working with those in recovery, we should keep in mind to be patient and try not to make the client’s fitness journey more stressful.

Remember that being healthy is a relative term and not widely understood by all in the same way.  As an example, at the peak of my addiction I rarely exercised basic hygiene skills, such as brushing my teeth or bathing, never mind doing physical activity or practicing healthy lifestyle habits. 


I began a walking program and sure enough within a week or so started feeling better. Eventually I progressed to jogging, resistance training, and learning how to eat better. Before it was all said and done I lost 100lbs and was able to get of all the antidepressants! But, it took time and small steps.

The likelihood of getting a client who is early in the recovery process to immediately start working out five day days per week, eat a balanced diet consisting of whole foods, and quit smoking all at the same time is slim to none.

That being said, meet them where they are and recognize that seemingly small things such as taking the stairs, drinking less soda, or getting more sleep are monumental steps toward living a healthier life. Fitness is a lifelong journey, so start clients slow, make it fun, and improve lives one body at a time! 

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Matt Hirschberg

Matthew D. Hirschberg is the Personal Training Director of Body Renew Fitness and a Master Trainer, State Representative and Subject Matter Expert through the National Federation of Professional Trainers. He holds separate certifications through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, CrossFit, TRX and ViPR. Matt is a bestselling author and motivational speaker represented by the Speakers for Change agency.

His audiences have included detention centers, recovery facilities, schools, churches, as well as business and professional settings. He is also the co-chairman of Clean, Inc. (Community and Law Enforcement Against Narcotics) as well as an Internationally Certified Peer Recovery Specialist.


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