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Can Regular Exercise Reduce Your Chances for Substance Abuse?

Posted on February 9th, 2016

Findings from researchers and doctors indicate that people who maintain a physically active daily routine may substantially lower their level of exposure to substance intake and substance-related problems.

An extensive body of research and doctors’ reports highlights a range of benefits associated with maintaining a physically active lifestyle. In a study review published in June 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two U.S. institutions assessed the evidence linking regular physical activity to reduced chances of consuming drugs or alcohol, as well as reduced chances of developing drug- or alcohol-related problems. In addition, the researchers assessed evidence that physical activity can help prevent the onset of substance-related problems.

Substance Misuse in America

Every year, millions of Americans repeatedly drink too much alcohol, inappropriately consume a mind-altering medication or consume an illegal drug. This is a critically important finding, since all three forms of substance misuse set the stage for diagnosable substance addiction or non-addicted, dysfunctional substance abuse. Recent study results from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) indicate that roughly 60 million Americans misuse alcohol by at least occasionally participating in the drunkenness-inducing practice called binge drinking. This is the equivalent of almost 23 percent of the total population over the age of 11. In addition, roughly 16.5 million Americans over the age of 11 participate in another form of alcohol misuse called heavy drinking, defined by the regular consumption of enough alcohol to seriously boost risks for alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism.

Marijuana is by far the most commonly consumed illicit or illegal substance throughout the nation. SAMHSA estimates point to a monthly marijuana consumption rate of approximately 7.5 percent among all American preteens, teenagers and adults (the equivalent of 19.8 million people). As a medication class, prescription opioids are particularly common targets of misuse. Other commonly misused medications include sedative-hypnotic tranquilizers, sedative-hypnotic sedatives and ADHD medications and other types of stimulants. Misuse rates for oxycodone, hydrocodone and other opioid medications are higher than the combined misuse rates for the other top three targeted medications. Relatively popular illegal drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, hallucinogens, MDMA (Ecstasy, Molly) and heroin.

Physical Activity

Many people associate physical activity with specific forms of exercise or with participation in an organized or team sport. However, you can also maintain a physically active lifestyle by doing such things as dancing, incorporating brisk walking into your daily routine, gardening or engaging in other forms of yard work. There are two primary forms of activity: aerobic exercises or activities that increase your heart rate and strength-building exercises or activities that increase your muscle mass. Light physical activity provides only limited health benefits. For this reason, public health guidelines recommend regular participation in either moderate or vigorous activity (depending on your fitness level).

Impact on Substance Use and Substance Problems

In the review published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Kentucky and the National Institute on Drug Abuse used the results of doctors’ clinical reports and previously conducted studies to help determine the extent of the connection between regular involvement in physical activity and the odds of using/misusing drugs or alcohol and subsequently developing some form of diagnosable substance problem. The researchers used the same data sources to help determine if physical activity has a preventive effect on problematic substance use. In addition, they looked for specific changes in brain function that might help explain any substance-related benefits of an active physical routine.

After completing their review, the researchers concluded that, with the exception of non-addicted alcohol use, physical activity clearly has a research-based impact on the odds of misusing drugs or alcohol, as well as the odds of developing serious substance-related issues. In addition, physical activity has a clear research-based benefit for substance treatment. However, the researchers also concluded that the real-world benefits of physical activity as reported by doctors are not as obvious. Doctors’ reports support the usefulness of physical activity for people affected by nicotine addiction, but don’t necessarily support the usefulness of activity for any other form of addiction. In addition, the researchers concluded that there is no research- or doctor-based evidence that clearly supports the usefulness of physical activity as a preventive measure against damaging substance use.

The review’s authors note that physical activity-related alterations in a specific brain area associated with higher-learning abilities may help explain any beneficial changes in risks for substance use/misuse.

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