Exercise and Addiction Treatment: Promoting A Healthier Lifestyle

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Exercise and Addiction Treatment: Promoting A Healthier Lifestyle

Researchers at St. Louis University published a study last month in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment that explored the relationship between exercise and addiction treatment. The research described a new intervention aimed to address obstacles encountered by those who are battling substance abuse.

Lead author Jeremiah Weinstock, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Louis University:

“Exercise has been proven to be a great treatment for not only depression and anxiety, but also for panic disorder and major depression. So, I think exercise just goes after some of those underlying problems that people with addiction struggle with.”

The exercise intervention is also intended to help people begin and sustain a physical activity program that meets public health guidelines. Current standards state that adults require at least 2.5 hours of moderate to intense aerobic activity per week to receive significant health benefits.

Evidence has shown that daily moderate to intense exercise is associated with a reduction in depression, prevention of weight gain, and increased strength.

Benefits of exercising every day have been scientifically proven to be very beneficial for those struggling with mental health issues or behavioral problems – however, many of these persons often do not engage in enough physical activity.

A Dual Approach

addiction treatment | Just Believe Recovery PAWeinstock has researched the relationship between exercise and addiction treatment for years, and subsequently designed an intervention that is a combination of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators – moreover, “motivational interviewing with contingency management.”

Motivation interviewing aims to encourage a person’s drive toward change while minimizing uncertainties. Contingency management is a behavioral treatment which employs money or other compensation as a reward when certain goals are completed.

Weinstock notes that financial rewards have been shown to assist people with addictions to start exercise programs. This is because these patients are often incurring financial difficulties that are a barrier to engaging in regular exercise.

Motivation interviewing is used in his intervention as well because research has shown its positive effect when employed as an individual approach or as part of a comprehensive substance abuse treatment program.


“Extrinsic motivation helps people start new things, so we offered gift certificates for people who started the exercise program. Then we really focused on intrinsic motivation because once those extrinsic motivators are gone, what keeps people going and sticking to exercise is intrinsic motivation, to get something out of it that internally just makes them feel really good.”

Exercise More, Drink Less?

addiction treatment | Just Believe Recovery PAWeinstock also hypothesized that through the promotion of positive behavior, other negative behaviors could change. Thus, he conducted a randomized clinical trial consisting of 70 college students from the University of Connecticut.

These students were described as heavy drinkers and sedentary. Weinstock employed an eight-week intervention that combined motivational interviewing with contingency management.

Students were provided weekly rewards for substance-abuse free exercise. Follow-up exams were performed two months and six months after the intervention.



“These individuals became more health-focused. They recognized the role of exercising in becoming healthier, and they also recognized the ways in which drinking may be detrimental to their health.”

In general, all participants revealed a significant increase in physical activity during the trial, but during the follow-up period, frequency declined.


“We also found reductions in drinking in those college students. Unfortunately, when we looked at whether the changes in the exercise were responsible for the changes in drinking, we found that they weren’t significantly related to each other, which was really kind of puzzling to us.”

A Dedication to Fitness and Furthering Research

Weinstock became interested in the connection between exercise and addiction treatment due to his love of running. He also noticed there is a lack of research on the topic:

“I got interested in exercise as an intervention for addiction because I am a runner. I know a lot about how running affects my body… I noticed that when you dig into the research literature, there are some stops along the way of really looking at exercise as a way to help people with addiction, and I think it has a lot of potentials.”

Weinstock’s work stressed the importance of patient evaluation before exercise can safely be added to addiction treatment, but also noted that everyone is capable of exercise and should do it.


“Exercise is good for all people, no matter where you are in terms of your physical health. “The question is ‘how much support and supervision do you need?’ For instance, someone who’s going through hip replacement surgery or has cardiovascular disease should definitely be supervised.”

For his next endeavor, Weinstock intends to find out more about what contributes to substance abuse patterns in different populations and how exercise can be linked to the latest information about these patterns.

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology

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