Addiction experts are looking at exercise as a potential non-drug treatment for various types of substance abuse. One study at Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston is examining whether exercise can treat people who are dependent on both cocaine and nicotine.
“Our lab has studied people who are dependent on cocaine, and over the years, we’ve noticed the vast majority are also dependent on cigarette smoking—about three times the national average,” says Richard De La Garza, II, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at BCM, and President of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD). He presented data about his newest research project on exercise as a treatment for drug dependence at the recent CPDD meeting in Palm Springs, California.
Dr. De La Garza came up with the idea after reading about a study showing that smokers who rode a stationary bike had reduced urges to smoke. He decided to investigate whether exercise could reduce both cocaine and nicotine urges in people dependent on both substances. “There’s no reason that exercise wouldn’t serve as a potential behavioral treatment for any addiction,” he notes.
He also points to studies showing that middle and high school students who participate in school athletic programs have lower rates of drug use than those who don’t exercise. “Maybe the reinforcing effects produced by exercise reduce the urge to abuse substances,” says Dr. De La Garza, who is a life-long runner.
If exercise is found to be useful in treating substance abuse, it would be a welcome addition to current pharmacological treatment approaches, he says. “That’s not to say medications don’t have their place, but there is a large problem with medication compliance. We know that a lot of people who are given prescriptions for any disease state don’t take all their medications, or don’t take them as often as they are supposed to.”
In the new study, patients who are dependent on both cocaine and nicotine are randomly assigned to sit, walk or run three times a week for one month, at the BCM facility. All of the subjects receive cognitive-behavioral therapy. The runners and walkers are given an individualized exercise program, based on their current physical fitness.
The subjects are given urine tests to check recent cocaine use, as well as breath and saliva tests to check for nicotine use, in addition asking them about their drug and smoking activities. The researchers follow up with study participants four and eight weeks after the protocol is completed.
“We will also be able to determine if they are deriving other benefits from exercising, such as weight loss, or feeling better about themselves,” Dr. De La Garza says. “There are a lot of benefits that come from exercise that can make a difference in the long run. If you’ve been sedentary and start exercising, it can be very empowering.”
At the end of the study, participants get to keep the running shoes and clothing they are given as part of the study. “I want to show individuals what I learned growing up, that as long as you have a pair of shoes, you can run anywhere in the world,” he notes.
Dr. De La Garza hopes to enroll a total of 72 patients. So far, about 25 percent of the patients have been enrolled.
When he wrote the grant application, he knew of no other researchers looking at the question of whether exercise can be used to treat substance abuse. Since then, others have started similar studies. At the CPDD meeting, he chaired a symposium on the issue with scientists investigating exercise as a treatment for drug dependence in various populations, including females, as well as individuals who are struggling with both substance abuse and depression.