Effects Of Exercise On Addiction

Exercise  has  been  proposed  as  a  potential  treatment  to  help  people  quit  smoking  and,  more recently,  to  treat  addictions  to  alcohol  and  other drugs of abuse. This entry discusses the rationale and empirical support for the use of exercise as a treatment for addiction.


Exercise  has  been  proposed  as  a  stand-alone  or supplementary treatment for addiction. The focus has  been  on  exercise  as  a  potential  treatment  to assist  with  successful  quitting  and  prevention  of relapse among those who are initially motivated to discontinue use of the addictive substance, rather than  to  produce  intentions  to  quit  among  those who  are  not  initially  motivated.  The  rationale for exercise as a potential treatment for addictive  substances is predicated on a number of potential mechanisms, including potential effects of exercise on (a) affective states, (b) cravings or urges to use the addictive substance, and (c) reduced concerns about post cessation weight gain.

Affective States

effects-of-exercise-on-addiction-sports-psychologyWithdrawal from addictive substances typically results in chronic negative shifts in affective valence (i.e.,  negative  mood  states).  It  has  been  proposed that  exercise  might  help  to  prevent  relapse  by attenuating  chronic  negative  mood  states  or  providing  a  substitute  means  for  producing  an  acute positive  shift  in  affective  valence.  This  proposed pathway was predicated on early research findings supporting the general notion that “exercise feels good.”  More  recent  research  has  shown  that  the effect of exercise on affective states (e.g., emotion, mood,  pleasure  or  displeasure)  is  more  complex. It  now  appears  that  affective  response  during exercise varies greatly based on a number of variables, including personal factors, such as exercise history,  fitness,  health  status;  exercise  setting  and mode;  and,  perhaps  most  importantly,  exercise intensity.  Nonetheless,  across  populations,  settings,  and  exercise  modes  and  intensities,  people generally tend to have a positive shift in affective valence  (feel  more  pleasure  or  less  displeasure) immediately  after  an  acute  session  of  exercise. Additionally,  there  is  accumulating  evidence  that engaging  in  a  program  of  regular  exercise  for  at least 8 weeks results in reduced depressive symptoms  among  clinically  depressed  adults.  Thus, given these caveats, there is reason to believe that exercise  might  serve  as  a  treatment  for  addictive substances through its influence on affective states.


A  second  potential  pathway  through  which exercise  may  serve  as  a  treatment  for  addictive substances involves the effects of exercise on acute cravings  or  urges  for  the  addictive  substance.  It has been posited that acute exercise may serve as a substitute or distraction for use of the addictive substance during a craving or urge, particularly to the extent that it is difficult—if not impossible—to use the addictive substance while exercising.

Concerns About Weight Gain

Another   potential   pathway   through   which exercise  might  serve  as  a  treatment  for  smoking cessation is through its effects on concerns about post cessation  weight  gain—a  common  barrier to  smoking  cessation,  especially  among  women. Indeed,  women  who  are  concerned  about  post cessation  weight  gain  are  less  likely  to  attempt smoking  cessation,  less  likely  to  successfully  quit smoking,  more  likely  to  relapse  postpartum,  and more likely to drop out of smoking cessation programs.  Exercise  plays  a  major  role  in  preventing weight gain, as a moderate increase in one’s level of  exercise  can  minimize  weight  gain  in  women who have quit smoking. The ability for exercise to combat weight gain in the general population and particularly  during  smoking  cessation  is  likely  to make  it  especially  attractive  for  women  smokers who  are  concerned  about  gaining  weight  during their smoking cessation attempt.


Exercise as a Smoking Cessation Treatment

Numerous  research  studies  have  shown  that a  single  exercise  session  has  favorable  effects  on immediate changes in affective states and cigarette cravings.  However,  the  optimal  mode,  intensity, and  duration  of  the  exercise  stimulus  remain unclear.  Moreover,  the  duration  of  the  effects  of a single session of exercise on affect and cravings remains uncertain.

While  outcomes  of  studies  examining  a  single session  of  exercise  on  affect  and  cravings  have been  generally  positive,  results  from  the  first  14 randomized controlled trials conducted have been equivocal,  with  only  a  single  study  showing  positive effects of exercise on rates of successful smoking cessation at the end of the trial. Some problems with  these  studies  are  (a)  a  lack  of  adherence  to the  exercise  treatments;  (b)  an  inability  to  objectively  verify  adherence  to  the  exercise  program; (c) lack of data on who continues to exercise during the study follow-up period, following the initial exercise  treatment  (usually  about  three  months); (d)  high  drop-out  among  study  participants;  and (e) lack of data on the potential mechanisms of treatment (see above). Thus, more research is needed to determine whether exercise is an effective treatment for smoking cessation, and if so, the optimal dose.

Exercise as a Treatment for Addiction to Alcohol and Other Drugs of Abuse

Research on exercise as a treatment for alcohol and other drugs has thus far been limited to studies conducted on animals and a few small-scale studies among humans. While the existing research shows promise,  no  large-scale  clinical  trials  have  been conducted in humans. Thus, it remains unclear as to whether exercise will serve as an effective treatment for addiction to alcohol and other drugs.


There is a strong rationale for exercise as treatment for addiction to various substances. Findings from research  on  animals  and  small-scale  studies  with humans are supportive of the rationale. However, outcomes  of  randomized  control  trials  have  been equivocal for smoking cessation and are yet to be conducted for alcohol and other drugs of abuse.


  1. Brown, R. A., Abrantes, A. M., Read, J. P., Marcus, B. H., Jakicic, J., Strong, D. R., et al. (2009). Aerobic exercise for alcohol recovery: Rationale, program description, and preliminary findings. Behavior Modification, 33, 220–249.
  2. Roberts, V., Maddison, R., Simpson, C., Bullen, C., & Prapavessis, H. (2012). The acute effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, affect, and smoking behaviour: Systematic review update and meta-analysis. Psychopharmacology, 222, 1–15.
  3. Ussher, M. H., Taylor, A., & Faulkner, G. (2012). Exercise interventions for smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 1,


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