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Exercise Helps Prevent Marijuana Relapse, Study Finds

Consumption of cannabis/marijuana leads to the onset of drug addiction in a significant number of users, even when use only occurs on an occasional basis. As is true with other forms of addiction, people recovering from cannabis addiction run the risk of relapsing back into active substance intake after establishing an initial pattern of abstinence. In a study published in September/October 2014 in The American Journal on Addictions, researchers from seven U.S. institutions explored the potential of regular exercise or some other physical activity to reduce the risks for a cannabis relapse in addicted individuals.

Cannabis/Marijuana Addiction

Like alcohol or any other drug or medication that produces a mind-altering effect by increasing the brain’s levels of euphoria, cannabis/marijuana can act as a source of substance addiction. As a rule, the road to addiction begins with repeated attempts to experience cannabis-derived euphoria. Over time, these attempts can trigger persistent changes in the chemical mixture in the brain’s pleasure center; in turn, persistent change in this brain area sets the baseline conditions for physical drug dependence, the necessary precursor for cannabis addiction. Dependence shades into addiction when the affected individual develops symptoms such as an inability to set limits on cannabis/marijuana use, reduced sensitivity to the drug effects of cannabis/marijuana, withdrawal in the absence of expected cannabis/marijuana intake, exposure to seriously negative personal or social outcomes as a result of cannabis/marijuana use and continued drug intake after such clearly negative outcomes occur.

Despite marijuana’s reputation as a generally harmless substance, cannabis addiction is not particularly uncommon. In fact, nearly 10 percent of all users will develop such an addiction eventually. Two subgroups of users — habitual or daily users and teenagers — have substantially higher rates of addiction. The risk for addiction doubles in teenagers and may increase by as much as 400 percent in habitual or daily users.

Cannabis Use and Physical Activity

There is already some scientific evidence to support the positive impact of physical activity on cannabis/marijuana intake. For example, in a study published in 2011 in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Vanderbilt University concluded that regular, brief exercise sessions on a treadmill can reduce cravings for marijuana in current heavy users by at least 50 percent, even when those users have no prior intention of curbing their consumption. The same level and type of exercise can also produce equal reductions in the amount of marijuana consumed by heavy users. The benefits of physical activity apparently do not take long to manifest. The study participants began reducing their marijuana intake after just five half-hour exercise sessions conducted over the course of a week.

Impact on Relapse Risks

In the study published in The American Journal on Addictions, researchers from James Madison University, Stanford University, the National Center for PTSD and four other institutions used an examination of 84 military veterans to explore the potential impact of exercise and other forms of physical activity on the odds that a newly abstinent cannabis user will relapse back into active cannabis intake. All of these veterans had symptoms that qualified them for a diagnosis of cannabis dependence/addiction. Instead of taking part in organized substance treatment, they were interested in using self-guided methods to eliminate their cannabis/marijuana intake.

Some of the study participants engaged in relatively little exercise, while others engaged in relatively moderate or high amounts of exercise. At the beginning of the study, the individuals in both of these groups had roughly equal cannabis/marijuana problems. After reviewing the cessation attempts of both groups, the researchers concluded that people in the low-exercise group were substantially more likely to abandon their abstinence efforts and return to active drug intake within one week. Risks for such a relapse were particularly prominent in the initial four days of cannabis/marijuana abstinence. In addition, among the members of both groups who relapsed back into active drug use, the individuals who engaged in relatively low amounts of exercise had a substantially higher cannabis/marijuana intake level than their counterparts who exercised in moderate or high amounts.

The study’s authors believe that early encouragement of exercise or other forms of physical activity may significantly help people affected by cannabis addiction who try to establish a pattern of cannabis/marijuana abstinence. It’s worth noting that the study group contained only three women; in addition, all results from the project came from the self-reports of the study participants rather than from objective assessments made by the research team.

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