Exercising to overcome addictions

There is plenty of evidence that shows exercise can reduce a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. But can exercise also be used as complementary treatment for addiction?

Stephen Bailey, professor of physical therapy education at Elon University, started thinking about that question several years ago when a colleague, who worked with Vietnam War veterans experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, found that patients who were physically active were better able to deal with their condition.

“There were some similar neurophysiologic events that were happening during exercise, and especially during prolonged exercise, that were similar to some of the neurochemical changes related to addiction and chronic stress,” he says.

Armed with this information, Bailey started a program at Elon in association with Alcohol and Drug Services, a nonprofit agency that provides methadone treatment in Burlington, N.C. As part of the program, patients who have taken their morning dose of methadone as treatment for their opiate addiction are encouraged to go to a small exercise facility the university has set up next door to the clinic and exercise in a small group setting.

Bailey has followed the patients’ progress for almost a year and has found that those who exercise, even if it’s just two, three times per week for 30 minutes,experienced less powerful cravings for the opiate, as well as cravings for cigarettes, a very common behavior among people who are on a methadone administered program. Those who exercised consistently also lost an average of 20 to 30 pounds. Though the effect is not as extensive as in those who exercised sporadically, Bailey says any amount of exercise is a valuable tool when dealing with negative behaviors in this population.

Though it’s unlikely that exercise will ever be able to produce the same “high” illegal drugs generate, Bailey says it provides psychological as well as physical benefits.

“People who exercise or are physically active tend to have an attenuated, or smaller, physiologic response to a psychological stressor,” Bailey says. “If we extend that to the addictive population, if they have a stressor in their lives, they have a physiologic response that’s more likely to send them to crave or to seek out their drug of choice,” something that can be lessened with exercise.

Moreover, Bailey says, people in methadone programs also tend to crave sugars, putting them at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, a condition exercise also counteracts. As he continues to study the relationship between addiction and exercise, Bailey says he would like to apply his findings to changes in public policy.

“I’d like us to think more about the value of physical activity as treatment for addictive disease as well as for reducing the increased risk of developing chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” he says. “The idea of having structured physical activity options associated with any treatment for addiction is a great idea; that’s the outcome I think we’d like to see.”


Select publications:

  • "Effect of Methadone Maintenance Treatment on Heroin Craving, a Literature Review." With Fareed A., Vayalapalli, S., Stout, S., Casarella, J., Drexler, K. Journal of Additive Diseases. 30:27-38 (2011).
  • "Tired of being tired: Exercise as a treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome." ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 15(1):20-21 (2011).
  • "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome." ACSM”s Exercise Management for Persons with Chronic Diseases and Disabilities, 3rd Edition" (J.L. Durstine and G.E. Moore Eds). Human Kinetics, Champaign-Urbana, IL, p. 233-238 (2009).
  • "Impact of prolonged exercise in the heat and carbohydrate supplementation on performance of a virtual reality task." With Pfluger, K.C., Holt, C., La Budde, Z., Afergan, D., Bartlett, S., Stripling, R., Miller, P.C., and Hall, E. Military Medicine 173(2): 187-192 (2008).
  • "Lack of relationship between functional and perceived quality of life outcomes following pulmonary rehabilitation." With Brown, L, and Bailey, E.K. Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy 19(1):3-10 (2008).
  • "Changes in brain activity during a graded exercise test on a recumbent cycle ergometer." With Hall, E.E., Folger, S.E., and Miller, P.C. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 7:505-511 (2008).

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