By James Fell
I like to run. Apparently, this gets me high.
Last year, researchers at the University of Arizona published a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology examining the “neurobiological rewards“ of treadmill running in 10 humans, eight dogs and eight ferrets.
No, the researchers were not high when they came up with this study design. For humans and canines, distance running has an evolutionary advantage for chasing down food and running away from things that want to turn us into food. Ferrets were included in the study because they don’t get high from running, which makes sense because these weasels hunt more by skulking and sprinting.
My point is: The human brain experiences a chemical reward when we exercise. There is evidence to show that this can be used as an alternative reward for those battling addiction, which can make staying clean easier.
“I’ve abused alcohol my entire life,“ 40-year-old Matt Boston of Sylvania, Ohio, told me. “Running is one of the most important parts of my recovery.“ A husband and father of a toddler, he drove home drunk last December, and the fear of what he’d done weighed on him, so he used counseling to get sober.
But he extols running as what helps him stay clean. “I’m in the best shape of my life right now,“ he said. Matt just finished his first marathon (in 3 hours and 54 minutes) and hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon one day. “I can’t say enough about the exercise component.“
And it was a former-addict-turned-Ironman-triathlete who helped Matt get, and stay, clean.
“I took my first drink when I was 13,“ said Todd Crandell, an addictions counselor and founder of Sylvania’s Racing for Recovery - a fitness-promotion program designed to battle substance abuse (racingforrecovery.com).
After that first drink, Crandell’s life spiraled out of control for the next 13 years. “I had a plan to be a pro hockey player, but I started hanging out with kids who were doing drugs,“ he said. “In my senior year of high school, I was expelled for doing cocaine on a hockey bus.“ He went from being offered college hockey scholarships to a drugged-out death spiral that included heroin, meth, pot, Valium and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
“At 26 I quit everything all at once,“ Crandell said of going cold turkey. “It was after my third DUI. I blew a 0.36 at noon.“
That’s 4.5 times the legal limit, at midday.
Quitting is only the beginning. It’s staying clean that’s the trick, and fitness became Crandell’s new passion. “When I stopped drinking and doing drugs, I immediately shifted to lifting weights and cleaning up my diet.“ This was followed by getting back into hockey, and he got good enough to play semipro for a while. After that, he began a running program, and this led him to complete 23 Ironman triathlons.
Two years ago, I interviewed actor Daniel Baldwin. He told me kettlebell training is instrumental in his not relapsing into drug addiction. And last winter, I interviewed Brent Smith, lead singer for the band Shinedown. He said exercise played a critical role in his kicking alcohol. But there is more to this phenomenon than anecdotes.
In 2011 researchers from Vanderbilt University did a study published in PLOS ONE that involved making a dozen marijuana users run on treadmills for 30 minutes 10 times over a two-week period. These were very heavy users, and they saw a dramatic drop in their cravings and their use of marijuana (a decrease of more than 50 percent) after just a few exercise sessions. Exercise was the only intervention. What’s interesting is that these people were deemed cannabis-dependent, and they didn’t even want treatment to help them stop smoking pot. The exercise alone made them cut their marijuana use by more than half.
And it’s not just pot. A 2011 analysis of research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry revealed how exercise is a powerful tool for reducing self-administered use of a host of other mind-altering substances, including cocaine, meth, nicotine and alcohol.
And beyond recovery, exercise can mitigate the brain damage. Because that kind of “analysis“ requires dissection, we need to extrapolate data from rodents. A 2012 study in the neuroscience journal Synapse let rats go on a meth bender, and it burned out their dopamine and serotonin receptors. After the meth, some of the rats were left to be cage potatoes, and others were made to run. The results show that the running rats significantly reduced the meth-induced brain damage, as well as experienced a profound positive effect on dopamine and serotonin receptors. And the lazy rats? The Swiss-cheesing brain effects of the drug lingered.
All of this is why the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., makes fitness part of the recovery program. “The 12 steps are the priority, and exercise is a coping skill and an outlet that involves learning how to take better care of your physical being,“ said Jennifer Dewey, fitness director for Betty Ford. “Patients work out with us every day. It’s a mandatory part of the treatment program.
“It’s one of the critical components of sustaining sobriety,“ Dewey said. And it’s not just about working out while in treatment. “We give them routines they can take home and follow.“ The center helps patients plan for a fitness-focused future as an aid to staying clean.
For Crandell, the message that exercise supports recovery from addiction is helping his program grow. Crandell, who also speaks on the subject of recovery and has published a book about going from addict to Ironman, began Racing for Recovery in 2001 as a way for people who got clean to stay clean. The free program has an annual 5K foot race, but it also hosts Olympic-distance triathlons and half Ironmans in many cities. “Over 50,000 people have been involved in the program since its inception,“ Crandell said.
A final word of caution is not to go overboard. “Sometimes people get off drugs and then all they do is exercise,“ Crandell said. “They’re just obsessed with something else. If you’re just running and not learning and healing, you’re missing the point.“