Addiction specialists and researchers know that exercise can potentially improve the outcomes of people recovering from an addiction to a substance of abuse. However, past results have indicated that the recovery-related benefits of exercise tend to appear only in people who participate in physical activity on a regular basis. In a study presented in April 2014 at an annual scientific gathering called Experimental Biology, researchers from the Scripps Research Institute tested the potential benefits of irregular or sporadic exercise in people recovering from methamphetamine addiction. These researchers concluded that even short-term exercise produces positive treatment results.
Meth Causes Brain Alterations
Methamphetamine produces a strong stimulant effect in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord), just like its relative amphetamine and the plant-based drug cocaine. However, when compared to amphetamine or cocaine, methamphetamine triggers more intense nervous system alteration. Practically speaking, this means that repeated meth users are particularly susceptible to the specific brain alterations that set the stage for both physical drug dependence and the collection of physical and behavioral symptoms associated with drug addiction. The standard treatment for methamphetamine addiction is a form of psychotherapy called behavioral therapy. Specific types of behavioral therapy commonly used in this context include cognitive behavioral therapy (designed to help affected individuals re-train their learned responses to drug-use cues) and contingency management (designed to give recovering addicts tangible, short-term incentives for complying with program rules and meeting program goals). Other common components of meth addiction treatment include urine drug testing and participation in a mutual self-help group (i.e., a 12-step group).
Exercise and Drug Use
Aerobic exercise is known for its potential to decrease involvement in at least some forms of drug use. According to the results of a study published in 2011 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, any one of several, potentially overlapping factors may help explain this fact. First, participation in exercise may activate some of the same areas of the brain that get activated during drug use; in turn, this exercise-related effect may decrease the urge to take drugs in order to achieve essentially the same result. Exercise may also produce an indirect beneficial impact by reducing the amount of time available for drug use. In addition, outside influences may work in combination with exercise participation to reduce drug-using urges and/or the time available to take drugs.
Benefit of Brief or Sporadic Exercise
In the study presented at Experimental Biology, the Scripps researchers used a laboratory experiment with rats to gauge the potential beneficial effects of brief or sporadic exercise on methamphetamine-using behavior. In previous experiments, these researchers had determined that regular access to exercise over a six-week period of time substantially reduced the rate of cocaine intake in another group of rats. In the current study, the researchers trained a group of rats to self-administer doses of methamphetamine, then gave them access to the drug. However, instead of letting the animals exercise for weeks prior to receiving drug access, they only let them exercise for a number of hours. The researchers concluded that, when the rats involved in the experiment only had the opportunity to exercise 22 hours prior to receiving access to methamphetamine, their use of the drug decreased substantially in comparison to times when no opportunity to exercise was made available. The authors of the study presented at Experimental Biology believe their findings may indicate that methamphetamine users who exercise only sporadically during recovery may still experience a substantial decline in their desire to take the drug. In addition, they believe that the benefits of exercise may manifest quickly as opposed to appearing only after extended periods of time. If their findings are correct, methamphetamine treatment programs may one day have a powerful new tool for helping recovering addicts achieve their program goals and establish a meth-free daily lifestyle. On a related note, evidence increasingly indicates that exercise can help reduce participation in other forms of drug use. For example, the Scripps team also conducted experiments that gauged the impact of exercise access on the drug-using behaviors of a group of rats exposed to the stimulant/hallucinogen MDMA (better known as Ecstasy or Molly). They concluded that the rats’ voluntary exercise behaviors led to a significant reduction in the rate of use of this “club drug.”