If you’re hooked to one of the deadliest bad habits—like binge-eating artery-clogging foods, drinking alcohol in excess, or smoking cigarettes—and these vices have a hold on your self-control, then the best fix might be a little sweat therapy.
That’s right: Exercise is one of the healthiest and most effective methods to ditch a bad habit (even if it’s not the easiest method).
Here, clinical sport psychologist Gloria Petruzzelli, M.D., highlights how and why working out has such a powerful, positive influence on your life.
1. Exercise lights up your reward center and circulates feel-good chemicals
“Humans are learning creatures, so if you grew up seeing your parents use alcohol, cigarettes, or food to deal with stress, or other emotions, you’re more likely to repeat that pattern,” Petruzzelli says. Plus, most bad habits hit all your pleasure marks. Anything that feels good in the moment is something you’re going to want to experience again, right?
Here’s the problem: When your brain experiences pleasurable stimulation, dopamine—the “reward chemical”—floods your brain. So, even though you know you’re doing something “bad,” it’s really difficult to kick because your body craves that high.
“Luckily, like bad habits, exercise also stimulates pleasurable neurochemicals, such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine, so it’ll only be a matter of time before your brain gets fixated on working out,” she says.
2. Working out dulls withdrawal symptoms
“Others struggle to quit bad habits because they experience emotional distress when the ‘habit’ is removed, which we call withdrawal symptoms,” Petruzzelli says. The fix? Moderate-intensity exercise lessens the desire to smoke and dulls withdrawal backlash, research shows. Exercise can curb irritability, stress, depression, and restlessness, researchers say.
The next time you’re itching for a cigarette or drink, do some bodyweight moves, like pushups, burpees, and mountain climbers—seriously, it works. Exercising diverts your attention and curbs the craving. (And if binge-eating is your affliction, or you use it to dampen negative feelings, exercise also decreases appetite because it suppresses ghrelin, the hunger hormone, according to research from the American Physiological Society.)
3. Training gives you a sense of purpose
When you create a goal—say, “run a marathon” or “lose 20lbs”—you’re more apt to banish a bad habit. Makes sense, right? You’re putting your free time and attention toward something healthy.
But for training to really stick, you’ll need a powerful reason to keep you coming back to the gym.
“Your ‘why’ must be associated with something deeply meaningful to you,” Petruzzelli says. “For example, you could have gotten test results back from a physical indicating you’re on the cusp of becoming diabetic.” That’s a powerful reason to kick unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits. Likewise, if you have zero energy, get out of breath easily, and can’t keep up in your rec league or with your kids, that’s going to motivate you to make some major changes.
4. Exercise improves your confidence and boosts brain power
People who exercise have better mental fitness, and brain imaging studies prove it. “Exercise boosts your endorphins, which can help you think more clearly, and help relieve pain, and stress,” Petruzzelli says. Working out also helps you drop fat and gain muscle, boosting your body image and confidence in your ability to accomplish a goal.
“[Exercise] also prevents cognitive decline—meaning our ability to memorize information, sustain focus, and retain and process information,” Petruzzelli says. You’ll also enjoy the benefit of better sleep and relaxation.
5. A workout regimen can make you more passionate
Find a routine, gym, and activity you love and you’re more likely to stay committed—not only to working out, but also avoiding your vice. “If it’s pleasurable, it’s likely dopamine will be associated with it,” Petruzzelli says, meaning you’ll have that invincible, happy-as-hell feeling surging through your body.
This positivity can lend itself to all facets of your life. You might feel renewed at work—more productive, eager to work, and able to put more into your day. You could also experience a surge in testosterone, which can amplify your libido and supercharge your sex life.
3 tips for using exercise to kick a bad habit
- Get some social support. “Finding a group or partner that knows what you’re trying to accomplish will make you more accountable,” Petruzzelli says. You’re going to hit rough patches when you want to quit, and to be perfectly honest, you will be tempted to fall into your bad habit once again. Having that extra bit of encouragement to stick with it will keep you from getting discouraged and give up.
- Be realistic. “If you smoked cigs for 10 years, don’t expect to drop the habit cold in two weeks,” Petruzzelli says. “It’s like expecting someone who boxed for two weeks to beat someone who’s been boxing for 10 years—highly unlikely.” Set small checkpoints and goals, so this becomes a lifestyle change, not just a temporary challenge.
- Have other ways to cope with withdraw symptoms and cravings. Sometimes you can’t stop what you’re doing and work out. We don’t expect you to drop to the floor on your commute to bang out pushups or stop a meeting to go run around the block. “Distractions such as video games or music, journaling, and meditation can help you manage negative emotions and distress, Petruzzelli adds.
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