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. Now the government is beginning a push for hard research to prove it.
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.
What first caught the attention of National Institute on Drug Abuse chief Dr. Nora Volkow: A study 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.
Last week Volkow brought more than 100 specialists in exercise and neurobiology to a two-day conference to explore physical activity’s potential in fighting substance abuse, and announced $4 million in new research grants to help.
Drug treatment programs often include exercise, partly to keep people distracted from their cravings, but there’s been little formal research on the effects.
The best evidence: 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, says lead researcher Dr. Bess Marcus.
She now is working with the YMCA on a larger, NIDA-funded study to prove the benefit.
Marcus cautions that people trying to kick an addiction have a powerful incentive to exercise. But, a few studies of school-age children 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.