Exercise is a powerful tool for mental health. It’s been shown to improve mood, relieve stress and depression, boost creativity and cognition, and even make therapy more effective—among other benefits.
Now, a new research review suggests physical activity may also help people cut back on drug and alcohol use. Adding physical activity to traditional treatment for substance-use disorder seems to lead to better results, says review co-author Florence Piché, a doctoral candidate in physical activity at the University of Montreal.
Treatment for substance use “is very often centered on psychological health. Physical health is sometimes set aside,” Piché says. Her research, however, suggests that combining the two may be more effective.
The review, published Apr. 26 in PLOS ONE, examined 43 previously published studies on treatment programs for alcohol or narcotic use (such as residential treatment or supervised detoxification) that included an exercise component. Jogging was the most-studied form of exercise, but some studies also tested yoga, cycling, strength training, walking, and other types of movement. The most common cadence of exercise was three 60-minute sessions per week, but that varied, too.
Sixteen of the papers looked at whether people who followed an exercise regimen in addition to typical treatment stopped or significantly reduced their substance use—and in 75% of those studies, they did. Piché and her colleagues didn’t directly compare the effectiveness of typical treatment for substance-use disorder versus treatment that included exercise. But most of the studies in the review used standard treatment in the control group; based on those results, they concluded that physical activity may make treatment more effective, she explains.
That’s not an entirely new finding. A 2014 meta-analysis also found that exercise can make people more likely to abstain from drug, alcohol, or tobacco use and less likely to experience withdrawal symptoms, leading the authors to conclude that it could be an effective complement to other treatment programs.
There are a few potential explanations for the apparent relationship between exercise and substance cessation, Piché says. One is that healthy behaviors tend to build upon one another—so if someone’s physical health improves with exercise, they may become more motivated to stop using drugs. Exercise can also become a healthier stand-in for substance cravings, studies suggest. A research review published in 2022 found that, over time, habitual drug users can swap their narcotics habit for an exercise routine.
Previous research has also demonstrated that people who exercise are less likely to use illicit drugs overall—perhaps because physical activity promotes similar reward sensations in the brain and improves overall psychological health.
Many people who become addicted to alcohol or drugs have other psychiatric diagnoses, Piché says, so improving one mental-health condition may have a positive domino effect. In her review of treatment plans that included exercise, symptoms of depression improved in 50% of the studies that tracked that outcome, while symptoms of anxiety improved in more than 70%.
Because all of the included studies focused on people in structured treatment programs, it’s not possible to say whether a self-guided exercise routine could help ease substance-use disorder. It’s a complex disease that can be difficult to treat—an estimated 40% to 60% of people relapse at least once—so it’s too simple to suggest that going for a jog can cure it outright.
But physical activity is an intervention with few downsides, a low barrier to entry, and the potential for great benefits—not just for substance use, but also for overall health.
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Contributor: Jamie Ducharme