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.
SUCCESS WITH SMOKERS
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.”
A SIMILAR EFFECT ON OTHER ADDICTIONS?
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.
CONTINUED SUPPORT FOR EXERCISE
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.