Can Exercise Cure Substance Abuse?

An intriguing study has been approved as of Sept. 19 that will examine whether exercise is a viable treatment option for stimulant abuse and dependence, specifically for nicotine, alcohol and other addicting substances.

Led by Dr. Madhukar Trivedi of the Psychiatry department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, a multi-site team has devised a randomized clinical trial called STRIDE (Stimulant Reduction Intervention using Dosed Exercise) that will compare exercise to health education as potential treatments.

At present, cognitive therapy is the predominant treatment option for stimulant abuse and dependence, but with the positive outcomes of exercise on smoking cessation, the STRIDE researchers intend to explore the possibility of expanding the positive effects of exercise. A few studies have shown benefits such as increased abstinence and reduced substance use as a result of exercise. In addition, an analysis of two other randomized trials demonstrated that participants who engaged in exercise had an increased length of abstinence, with 66.7% of the participants continuously abstinent at the end of a 12-week intervention.

Additionally, exercise has been shown to reduce depression and anxiety, which are two major contributing factors to alcohol and substance addiction. It’s also associated with an improved quality of life and sleep, both of which are disrupted by stimulant use. One additional point – the concern people have about weight gain, which may contribute to substance sue relapse, is mitigated with an exercise intervention.

Another focus of the study will be the positive effects that exercise will potentially have on brain functioning of substance abusers. Rats have been able to increase their contextual learning and memory, and this study will extrapolate that to humans to determine if hippocampal functioning (memory) improves as a cause of the exercise protocol.

The researchers are planning to examine whether exercise improved outcomes through several mechanisms – Is it likely to impact the underlying biology of addicted persons? Will it act as a behavioral treatment intervention? Will exercise decrease reactivity to stress? Will self-efficacy improve? And finally, is it possible that it will be enough of a distraction that addicts will be sufficiently diverted from their urges to use substances, and instead substitute positive lifestyle changes?

The STRIDE study will evaluate 330 participants who are currently receiving substance abuse treatment in a residential setting. They will be assigned to one of two groups: Vigorous Intensity High Dose Exercise Augmentation (DEI) or Health Education Intervention Augmentation (HEI). Both groups will also receive Treatment as Usual (TAU). The STRIDE study will have an initial 12-week acute phase, followed by a 6-month continuation phase.

As an exercise instructor who also holds an advanced degree in mental health counseling, I am definitely looking forward to reading the results of this study!


Reference: [PDF warning!]

Alexandra Williams

Alexandra Williams, MA (counseling) is one-half of humorous expert fitness advice columnists, Fun and Fit, which she writes with her identical twin sister, Kymberly Williams-Evans, MA.

3 thoughts on “Can Exercise Cure Substance Abuse?

  • October 25, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I belive that exercise is effective fight against substance abuse. I smoked when i was younger and then I started my training and gradually let go of cigarettes.

  • September 22, 2011 at 4:22 am

    It has been common knowledge that exercise makes you feel better. Now we have the studies to back it up

  • September 21, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I am really looking forward to the results of this study. When it comes to any type of substance abuse a multi ‘attack’ approach is always best. For example, with nicotine addiction, cognitive behavioural therapy plus nicotine patches for weaning plus zero/low nictoine fake cigarettes can all be used together to help break the addiction. The more used methods used the great the chances of success.

    So if exercise proves to an effective fight against substance abuse, then exercise along with CBT and any other methods might be an awesome combination to break addictions.


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