Exercise Can Help Break Cocaine Addiction

Aerobic exercise is the general term for any form of exercise that relies on the intake of oxygen to provide the energy required to move the body’s large muscles. People who regularly perform this type of exercise can make a variety of mental and physical changes that support long-term health and decrease the risks for chronic illness. Current evidence indicates that regular participation in aerobic exercise can also play a critical role in helping cocaine addicts stop their drug intake and remain abstinent during the addiction recovery process.

Aerobic Exercise Basics

The word aerobic translates roughly as “living in air,” and aerobic exercise requires a prolonged increase in air intake in order to sustain coordinated movement of the body’s large, voluntarily operated muscles (also known as the skeletal muscles). This type of exercise contrasts with anaerobic exercise, which doesn’t rely on sustained movement or a prolonged increase in air intake. Generally speaking, the movements required during aerobic exercise are performed for relatively extended periods of time, while the movements required during anaerobic exercise are performed for brief periods of time. Common examples of aerobic exercises include low-intensity activities such as light walking and bicycle riding, moderate-intensity activities such as brisk walking and bicycle riding, and high-intensity activities such as jogging, running and jumping rope. Examples of anaerobic exercises include weightlifting and sprinting. In order to pull in enough air to support their activities, aerobic exercisers must speed up and deepen their breathing. Aerobic exercise also requires a more rapid delivery of oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream, as well as a more rapid delivery of the oxygen in the bloodstream to the muscles involved in physical exertion. In combination, these requirements support an improvement in both lung health and heart health when exercise is performed on a regular basis. Other benefits associated with regular involvement in aerobic exercise include an increased ability to control body fat, improved muscle tone, an increase in energy levels, better sleep, a decrease in any tendencies toward anxiety or depression, and a generally improved mental outlook.

Cocaine Addiction Basics

Cocaine users typically begin their transition toward addiction when they repeatedly take the drug in a quest to recreate the intensity of the feelings they had during the initial phase of drug exposure. Once a dependence on the drug is established, addicts will take at least enough cocaine at any given point in time to meet the minimal needs of their chemically altered brains and bodies. If an addict makes the decision to stop using cocaine, he or she will have to cope with withdrawal, a physical and psychological state that arises when the body no longer receives as much of the drug as it expects. Even after the primary symptoms of withdrawal subside, an addict will face the ongoing possibility of a relapse.

Effects of Aerobic Exercise

In 2012, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported the results of studies performed on rats that examined the effects of aerobic exercise on their urge to use cocaine after the start of drug abstinence. Rats are considered a good substitute for humans in this context because they react to the presence and absence of cocaine in ways that closely mimic the reactions of humans. At the beginning of their respective studies, researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of Minnesota gave their test subjects free access to cocaine. Next, they discontinued this access and introduced half of the rats in the study to regular aerobic exercise in the form of running sessions on stationary wheels. Compared to the animals that did not participate in regular aerobic exercise, the animals that did showed a significantly smaller tendency to seek out cocaine during active drug withdrawal. Once the period of withdrawal had passed and drug abstinence was established, the rats that exercised regularly also showed an increased resistance to various drug-taking cues and had a much easier time avoiding a relapse and maintaining cocaine abstinence than their non-exercising counterparts. The research teams cite two distinct reasons why aerobic exercise improves the chances for cocaine abstinence. First, the animals that exercised had something to focus their physical and mental energies on during the withdrawal and recovery process. Also, aerobic exercise increases the brain’s supply of dopamine, a pleasure-producing, neurotransmitting chemical that also increases during cocaine use. Apparently, since exercise acts as an alternative pathway for dopamine release, its effects at least partially negate the desire or physical need to take cocaine. In addition, aerobic exercise may support cocaine abstinence by altering the brain’s supply of another important neurotransmitter, called glutamate, which plays a prominent role in the production of drug cravings in both active and recovering addicts.

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