Sure, exercise is good for your waistline, your heart, your bones – but might it also help prevent addiction to drugs or alcohol?
There are some tantalizing clues that physical activity might spur changes in the brain to do just that.
This is not about getting average people to achieve the so-called runner’s high, a feat of pretty intense athletics.
Instead, the question is just how regular physical activity of varying intensity – dancing, bicycling, swimming, tae kwan do – might affect mood, academic performance, even the very reward systems in the brain that can get hijacked by substance abuse.
A few years ago a study in the USA found tweens and teens who reported exercising daily were half as likely to smoke as their sedentary counterparts, and 40 percent less likely to experiment with marijuana.
Drug treatment programs often include exercise, partly to keep people distracted from their cravings, but there’s been little formal research on the effects and there should be.
Over in the USA again. Brown University took smokers to the gym three times a week and found adding the exercise to a smoking-cessation program doubled women’s chances of successfully kicking the habit. The quitters who worked out got an extra benefit: They gained half as much weight as women who managed to quit without exercising.
A few studies of school-age children also suggest physical activity predicts better performance on math, verbal and other tests – and better school performance in turn is linked to lower risk for substance abuse.
And getting sedentary seniors moving improves brain function research aimed at preventing dementia, not drug abuse, found, although the improvement is in an area that in younger people is linked to risky decision-making.
So, can exercise prevent substance abuse? We believe it can.