The following is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the views of exercise basics.
Contributed by Jen Pooley
The benefits of exercise have long been hailed in scientific literature; various studies prove the existence of a link between a physically active lifestyle and a lesser risk of obesity, Type II diabetes and heart disease. Recent findings, however, also indicate that exercise has an important role to play in mental conditions like anxiety and depression. It is also an important part of many rehabilitation programs at leading centers in the US, owing to its ability to help stave off addiction. These are just some of the most interesting findings on the link between exercise and addiction:
- Exercise keeps the youth smoke-free. A study published by scientists at the University of Michigan showed that teens who engaged in regular sport where less likely to have smoked cigarettes or abused marijuana. Statistics have remained stable similar since the mid-1990s. Preliminary studies also indicate that exercise effectively decreases the demand for nicotine in laboratory animals.
- Exercise curbs drug abuse during the stages of initiation and maintenance. Exercise also prevents drug abuse from escalating and lessens episode of bingeing. A study published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychiatry (Mark Smith et al, 2011), explains that the extent of addiction is often dependent on what takes place during various stages of consumption. There is a link, for instance, between the rapid transition from initial drug experimentation to regular patterns of drug use, and later problems with abuse and dependence. Laboratory studies have shown that rats that were initiated to an addictive drug and engaged in exercise, self-administered significantly lower rates of the addictive substance than sedentary rats. In the same way, rats who were physically active opted for lesser amounts of the addictive substance during the ‘maintenance’ phase (i.e. the post-initiation phase). Those that exercised also had less dramatic escalation of drug use and less bingeing episodes. The latter in particular is of great interest, since drug binge episodes are associated with higher overdose rates.
- Exercise can aid in combatting depression. A study carried out by M Babyak et. al. set out to assess the effect of aerobic exercise, sertraline therapy, or a combination of exercise and sertraline therapy, in 156 adult volunteers suffering from major depression. Scales of depression were measured via the Diagnostic Interview Schedule and the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression, as well as through self-reporting via the Beck Depression Inventory. After four months, participants in all three groups showed significant improvements in depression; however, after 10 months, subjects in the exercise group had significantly lower relapse rates that those in the medication group. Those who engaged in physical activity during the follow-up period also had a lesser chance of being diagnosed with depression after follow-up. This led researchers to conclude that exercise can play an important role in the treatment of depression.
Activities like yoga and Pilates, in particular, have been used successfully to combat depression and anxiety, which is why they are often used as complementary treatments in top rehabilitation centers in the U.S. A recent study on Pilates showed that depressed women in a residential center for abused women who did 20-45 minutes of Pilates a day, three days a week, had significantly higher levels of serotonin and a 34 per cent decline in depression.
- Exercise reduces stress. When addicts are in the process of rehabilitation, they are forced to face acute episodes of stress as they are forced to control carving and as worry begins to set in about the effects of their addiction on their relationships with others and their future. Studies on women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer have shown that yoga significantly reduces cortisol levels and lessens fatigue.
Behavioral/psychological mechanisms that contribute to the beneficial effects of exercise: M Smith et.al. (2011) note that there are various reasons why exercise can be so efficient in dealing with addiction. Firstly, the fact that exercise can decrease the self-administration of drugs can decrease the “relative reinforcing strength of the drug when both are concurrently available.” Secondly, since exercise decreases depression and anxiety, it reduces risk factors for abuse/relapse. Finally, the positive effects of exercise on our well-being and self-esteem result in a lower likelihood of substance abuse. Interestingly, “accumulating evidence shows that exercise influences many of the same signaling molecules and neuroanatomical structures that mediate the positive reinforcing effects of drugs.” As the Mayo Clinic notes, exercise is beneficial for everyone: “The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are hard to ignore. And the benefits of exercise are yours for the taking, regardless of your age, sex or physical ability.”