Thursday, August 27, 2009

Exploring the Potential of Exercise as a Treatment to Addiction

Exploring the Potential of Exercise as a Treatment to Addiction

By Kye Taylor

Every morning, as I arrive at work, I know that the events of my day will focus around one foundational purpose – How can I create an environment that will allow the men at our alcohol and drug treatment center to realize the power of exercise? While this challenge can often be daunting (it is not easy to compete with a comfy couch and Monday Night Football), there are shining stories of success that both re-energize my efforts, as well as provide proof to the men that such a metamorphosis is possible.

In July of 1992, Charlie Engel, a hardcore drug addict of ten years, gave up drugs for good after smoking crack cocaine in a seedy hotel room is Wichita, Kansas. The now 45 year old Engle, has since run across the Sahara Desert in North Africa, covering 4,300 miles enroute. Engle, who regularly runs 40-50 miles a day, is considered a legend in ultra-marathon running circles. Now, go ahead and add to the list the Gobi Desert, Atacama Desert, the Amazon rainforest, Vietnam, and the jungles of Borneo – not bad for a former addict.

Engle, in an interview in the September issue of Maxim Magazine titled “Running From Addiction: How the once mythical “runner’s high” is helping former users kick their habits, one mile at a time,” explained how his substance misuse actually prepared him for his new life. “Drug addiction was my training ground” said Engle. Engle elaborates on this notion, stating that “Without those 10 years of torture, there’s not a chance in hell I’d be doing the things I’m doing today. I figured out I didn’t need to trash my addictive traits in order to be good at something other than taking drugs.” Obviously, Engle is an extreme case, but he is not alone in his belief that the transition from a negative drug addiction to a positive exercise addiction is a powerful tool for recovery.

Another person who has experienced the redemptive powers of exercise is Todd Crandell. His remarkable story was featured along-side Engle’s in the same article, as both stories were too influential to be cut out. Not only has Crandell helped himself overcome a life of addiction, but also, he has founded a revolutionary organization called Racing for Recovery that now helps others do the same.

After being an addict for 13 years, it got to the point, says Crandell, that “When I woke up in the morning, my first thought would be, Damn, I’m still alive. How much of this stuff is it going to take for me to overdose and die?” In 1993, with beer in hand, after over a decade of addiction, Crandell decided to change his life for good. He started training to compete in the Ironman triathlon, consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run. When asked of the appeal of competing in such a grueling event, Crandell remarks, “When I’m running, I feel like I’m on amphetamine. People say to me that I’ve just swapped one addiction for another addiction. They’re both highs, but one is destructive and the other is extremely productive.”

Since his life changing epiphany, Crandell has accomplished a lot, competing in more than a dozen Ironmans, writing a book entitled Racing for Recovery: From Addict to Ironman, as well as using his own money to start Racing for Recoverywhich has helped many others discover, like he did, how exercise can help them regain command over their lives, focusing their efforts in a positive direction towards a tangible goal. Aaron Dalley, a 28 year old recovering alcoholic, who lives and works at Crandell’s Racing for Recovery facility, breaks it down as follows “I wouldn’t say that if you go running you automatically get sober, but the exercise changes you. You sleep better. You eat better. It boosts your self-esteem, which makes it easier to concentrate on staying sober.”

Brain Chemicals Have Often Been Identified with the “Runner’s High”

Brain chemicals have often been identified with the “runner’s high” and with drug addiction. In his Maxim story, Frank Owen points to research on endorphins as a mood-lifting brain chemical that has it’s fair share of both proponents and critics. Other brain chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and epinephrine have also been identified in research.

A New Book Holds Promise for Those Struggling with Drug and Alcohol Addiction

So, what are we to make of all of this? How is it that exercise helps former addicts overcome decade long addictions? Dr. John Ratey devotes a chapter of his new book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brainto answering just such a question. Ratey spends much of the chapter weaving together case studies and his ‘alternative’ approach that incorporates exercise as a form of treatment for his patients. He uses stories from many of his own patients who have had success overcoming their addictions with exercises ranging from Dance Dance Revolution to jump rope. However, the truly fascinating parts come from Ratey’s explanation of the neuroscience behind his patients’ success.

Ratey explains, “What makes addiction such a stubborn problem is the structural changes it causes in the brain. Scientists now consider addiction a chronic disease because it wires in a memory that triggers reflexive behavior.” According to Ratey, exercise is perhaps the most powerful way to combat this structural change. “Exercise builds synaptic detours around the well-worn connections automatically looking for the next fix”, says Ratey. While this may be the most notable component in terms of addiction, exercise also has a restorative and rebalancing affect on the brain that Ratey goes on to discuss in depth.

There are two things important to note. Firstly, is that exercise does not merely induce a ‘runners high’, but it also stimulates the release of many neurotransmitters that help regulate normal brain function. Secondly, exercise actually changes the structure of your brain, creating new pathways that serve as alternatives to getting back on the merri-go-round that is addiction.

An Addiction Research “Giant” is Now Studying Exercise

As recently as this past June, the US-based National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) held a two-day symposium, Can Physical Activity and Exercise Prevent Drug Abuse? Promoting a Full Range of Science to Inform Prevention, which gathered practitioners and basic, clinical, and translational researchers from various disciplines to share ideas.


As compelling stories of recovery such as Todd Crandell’s and Charlie Engle’s continue to emerge, it has become increasingly clear that exercise can be used as a powerful weapon in the fight against addiction. Here at Sunshine Coast Health Center, we have jumped on board of the paradigm shifting movement towards using exercise to overcome addiction.

While stories like Crandell’s and Engle’s help to lend authenticity to amassing scientific research regarding exercise and addiction, they also reinforce the need for continued research at the point in which neuroscience and exercise converge. Only through the continued scientific exploration by those such as Dr. John Ratey can we fully understand the potential of exercise as both a method of prevention and treatment to addiction.

For those who remain skeptical of the therapeutic value of exercise, consider for a moment any other proven and effective methods of treatment to addiction that are cheap, non-invasive, relieve mild depression, stimulate brain cell growth, and also trim your waist-line – Still thinking? That should be motivation enough to want to include exercise as part of your recovery!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Exercise Helps in Addiction Treatment

Struggling with Addiction? Exercise Might Help

By Hugh C. McBride

Strange as it may sound, the road to addiction recovery might start on a treadmill.

A series of studies evaluating the relationship between exercise and substance abuse has produced promising results, prompting the National Institute on Drug Abuse to offer $4 million in grant money for additional research into whether regular vigorous activity can prevent addiction.

“Exercise has been shown to be beneficial in so many areas of physical and mental health,” NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow said in a press release announcing a two-day conference on the role of physical activity in addiction prevention. “This cross-disciplinary meeting is designed to get scientists thinking creatively about [exercise’s] potential role in substance abuse prevention.”

The release said that more than 100 scientists were scheduled to gather at NIDA headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, June 5 and 6 to plot a course for further exploration of this emerging approach to addiction prevention and rehabilitation.


Drug rehabilitation
programs have long included exercise regimens to strengthen the bodies of recovering addicts and to occupy their time and minds. But a Brown University study in the late 1990s showed that regular vigorous activity could actually affect an addicted individual’s ability to remain abstinent.

The Brown study, which was led by Bess Marcus of the university’s Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, evaluated the effects of exercise on 281 healthy but sedentary females who were attempting to stop smoking. For 12 weeks, all of the women in the study attended a weekly smoking-cessation program – but 147 participants were also enrolled in thrice-weekly wellness classes, while the remaining 134 participated in supervised exercise sessions three times per week.

According to a ScienceDaily article from June 16, 1999, the women in the study who participated in the exercise program were twice as likely to become and remain smoke-free as were the women who attended the wellness classes, but didn’t exercise:

  • At the end of 12 weeks, 19.4 percent of exercisers had kicked the habit for at least two months – almost double the 10.2 percent rate of the non-exercising control group.
  • Three months later, 16.4 percent of the exercisers and 8.2 percent of the non-exercisers were still not smoking.
  • One year after the study, 11.9 percent of the exercisers remained smoke-free, compared with 5.4 percent of the women in the non-exercising group.

Even within the more successful exercise group, ScienceDaily reported, the percentages were best among those who had attended the greatest number of workouts. “Of these women, 47.2 percent had ceased smoking and stayed cigarette-free compared to 28.9 percent of the non-exercise group at the end of 12 weeks. A year after the program ended, 27.8 percent of women who had adhered to the exercise regimen had not smoked compared to 18.1 percent of non-exercisers.”

In a release distributed by the Brown University News Bureau, Marcus said that regular activity offered a wealth of benefits for individuals who were attempting to kick a tobacco addiction. “There are numerous health benefits to participating in an exercise program,” she said. “For starters, exercise helps you manage weight, stress, mood, anxiety, depression and blood lipids.”


The Brown study was not the first research involving exercise and addiction. Scott Winnail, Ph.D., who authored a study that was published in the December 1995 edition of the Journal of School Health, wrote that his research led him to conclude that increases in physical activity levels were associated with decreases in teens’ use of tobacco and marijuana.

But, as indicated by the importance NIDA officials attached to the organization’s recent seminar on the topic, the idea that the very act of exercising can increase an individual’s ability to overcome an addiction is a relatively new concept that merits additional evaluation.
Associated Press medical reporter Lauran Neergaard, who wrote a June 9, 2008 article on the NIDA conference, noted this interest may have been inspired in part by the following findings:

  • Researchers have discovered that rats whose cages contained running wheels were less likely to ingest amphetamines than were more sedentary rodents.
  • Exercise in humans is known to trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that has been associated with mood improvements and depression relief.
  • Studies have shown that elderly individuals who exercise have improved brain function and may, as a result, be less susceptible to the effects of dementia.


The recent studies and NIDA’s increased attention are part of a continuum of research and reports advocating regular physical activity to preclude the onset of a wide range of physical and mental diseases and conditions.
The President’s Council on Physical Fitness advises Americans to exercise daily as a means of reducing their risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer. Regular activity, the council says, can lower blood pressure, slow the onset of osteoporosis, and reduce symptoms associated with arthritis.

And Dr. Daniel M. Landers of Arizona State University’s Department of Kinesiology has written that “We now have evidence to support the claim that exercise is related to positive mental health as indicated by relief in symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
The findings of these studies are encouraging many addiction treatment programs to include physical exercise that may also include such practices as yoga and Pilates.