New research shows exercise can help reduce substance use

As America grapples with a surge in drug overdose deaths, a new study has revealed that exercise may help reduce substance use and improve mental health. The researchers analyzed 43 studies involving more than 3,000 participants and found that exercise was linked to a reduction in substance use in about 75% of the studies. Additionally, exercise was associated with increased self-esteem, confidence, and lower rates of depression.

The exercise routines varied, but the most common activities included easy jogging about three times a week or comparable amounts of weight training, walking, yoga or cycling.

While it remains unclear precisely why exercise can help those grappling with addiction, research has shown that it can alter the brain’s reward system. Drugs and alcohol activate the reward system, particularly the production of dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter involved in reward processing. This produces temporary feelings of pleasure and reinforces the desire for more drugs. However, exercise can alter dopamine processing, potentially making exercise feel as enjoyable than drugs.

The study did not specify how much or what type of exercise is required to reap these benefits. However, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans currently recommend that adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week and two days of muscle-strengthening activity. Overall, this research offers a glimmer of hope in the fight against substance use disorder and its impact on mental health.