Does Exercise Help Drug Addicts Recover?

Scientists in the Middle East put twenty-four rats through a grueling exercise regime where they would run on a treadmill for around one and a half hours each day. The rats would run on a light incline, and afterwards they would enjoy a brief rest. The rest was brief because, 30 minutes later, the scientists would let the rats get high on morphine.

The scientists were looking to see whether rats would change their morphine usage based on their exercise patterns. The expectation was that rats would be less likely to take drugs when they are exposed to aggressive exercise, and the expectation was right.

The idea has been studied from around the 1990s, and since that time it has been shown that rats go off morphine – even nicotine and amphetamines – when they go from being a rat into a gym rat. And it’s not just the rats from Iran. On similar tests on other mammals, alcohol and cocaine become less appealing when you’ve just sprinted around a wheel.

A growing body of evidence shows that humans are not too different from the rats in the Iranian study. Sit down with your friends who smoke, give them a nice cup of coffee, and then offer them a cigarette. They’ll say yes.

But, take the same friends out for a run, and then offer them a cigarette at the end. They’ll say no. Even if you wait until your friends seem to have fully recovered from exercise, they’re still more likely to say no for hours afterwards.

While scientists are clear on the results of exercise, the reasoning is less clear, says the team at drug rehabilitation clinic Valley Hope Association.

“We encourage our patients to take regular exercise, because it makes recovery easier, and it helps them to feel healthier – physically and mentally. The evidence shows that this works, but the causality is less clear.”

An article in Slate speculates about why exercise makes drugs less appealing. The article suggests that it could be because exercise acts as a distraction, or that it’s because it relieves stress. The article suggests it could even be because exercise becomes addictive in itself.

“Have you ever felt irritable after skipping a yoga class or two? Or a little depressed and lethargic when you don't have time for the gym? These might be construed as withdrawal symptoms—the eventual outcome of an activity or habit that mimics, in some important ways, the effects of morphine and cigarettes and dope. To put it another way—and maybe one that sounds less like vapid neuropunditry: Exercise may prevent drug use by helping us to replace one compulsive, feel-good behavior with another.”

Another reason could be that addicts know that drug addiction will worsen their performance. You remember the physical pain of exertion, and you want to overcome that the next time you’re in the gym. Or, you start to like the way your body shape is changing, and you know that drugs will hold back your progress.

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Mark Dilworth, BA, PES


About Mark

Hi, I'm Mark Dilworth, Nutritionist, Dietary Strategies Specialist, Nutrition for Metabolic Health Specialist and Lifestyle Weight Management Specialist. Since 2006, I have helped thousands of clients and readers make lifestyle habit changes which includes body transformation and ideal body weight.