Even a Little Exercise May Prevent Relapse

Here’s a surprisingly easy step you can take toward sustaining your recovery, according to a recent study from The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI): Get up and get exercising. It turns out that even a light workout may have the power to help ward off a relapse.

In the 2014 trial, scientists found that minimal physical activity was enough to dampen the desire to use methamphetamine while going through withdrawal, according to Chitra Mandyam, PhD, an associate professor at TSRI and lead author of the research, which looked at how running on an exercise wheel affected the behavior of meth-addicted rats.

When rats had exercised on a wheel during the withdrawal stage, they sought meth less when reintroduced to their old drug-using environment and again had access to the drug. Further research is needed to confirm that humans can expect the same benefits, says Dr. Mandyam. But “there is a lot of hope,” she says. Approximately 595,000 people in the U.S. report being past-month meth users, according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“Even very low levels of activity were sufficient to reduce seeking of the drug when it was made available again after a period of withdrawal,” notes Mandyam. That means there may not be any need to train like an Olympian in order to reap exercise’s protective effects. “That was really, really important,” she says. “What if you needed intense amounts of activity that you could just not expect from somebody who is going through withdrawal? That would not make too much sense if you wanted to translate [this research] to humans,” she says. “But given the results that we see, it appears that very minimal amounts of activity that these rats chose to do voluntarily was more than sufficient to not only produce behavioral changes but also produce comparable changes in the brain.”

The researchers also found that in the animals that had not exercised during withdrawal the number of neurons increased in an area of the brain associated with pain, the periaqueductal gray. Further studies are needed to examine exactly how being sedentary affects feeling pain during the withdrawal stage. Dr. Mandyam’s hope, she says, is that these findings might open the door to the development of drugs that could target particular brain regions or neurons. There are currently no FDA-approved medications to treat methamphetamine addiction.

Mandyam and her colleagues began their work in response to a call from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which several years ago encouraged the scientific community to examine the link between physical exercise and recovery from drug addiction. In an earlier study completed in 2013, the research team found that rats that exercised on a running wheel consumed less meth when given access to the drug. Because physical activity turned on the brain’s reward center in much the same way as the drug, it had a “protective effect,” Mandyam explains.

The bottom line is that although this research is very preliminary where people are concerned, if you or a loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, it almost certainly can’t hurt to lace up those sneakers. Voluntary exercise of any sort, it seems, may even help increase the ability to handle withdrawal and sidestep a relapse — and best of all, you might not even have to do a lot of it.

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