Last month’s volume of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment included a research that explored the benefit of physical exercise in addiction treatment.

“Exercise has been proven to be a great treatment for not only depression and anxiety, but also for panic disorder and major depression,” said Jeremiah Weinstock, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Louis University and lead author of the research article. “So, I think exercise just goes after some of those underlying problems that people with addiction struggle with.”

Weinstock’s research described a new exercise intervention to address barriers encountered by people struggling with substance use disorders (SUDs) as they aim to start and maintain physical activity programs that meet public health guidelines.

Current guidelines state that adults need a minimum of 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week to experience significant health benefits. Reduced depression, prevention of weight gain and improved muscular strength are among the many benefits associated with daily moderate-intensity exercise – usually described as an intensity level in which a person is capable of talking, but not singing.

The positive effects of daily exercise are not only well-known but are proven to be particularly significant for people struggling with mental or behavioral disorders, yet exercise is often not a part of their lives.

A two-front approach

After years of extensive experience researching the rationale of physical exercise in the treatment of drug addiction, Weinstock drafted the intervention included in his research to be a fusion of specific intrinsic and extrinsic motivators – or in his words, a combination of “motivational interviewing with contingency management.”

Motivational interviewing is an approach that aims to enhance a person’s drive and eliminate uncertainties toward change. Contingency management is a form of behavioral treatment in which monetary or tangible compensations are provided when specific goals are met.

According to Weinstock, closely-monitored financial rewards have been shown to help people with SUDs start exercise programs because financial struggles are often reported by patients as obstacles to regular exercise. And motivational interviewing was added to the intervention because multiple studies have demonstrated its positive impacts when used as a separate approach or as a part of larger addiction treatment intervention.

“We used a two-front approach,” he said. “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.”

Students drink less when they exercise more  

Hoping that by promoting a specific (positive) behavior, another (negative) behavior would change, Weinstock led a randomized clinical trial in December with 70 heavy-drinking, sedentary college students from the University of Connecticut.

Again, Weinstock’s tactic was to mix motivational interviewing with contingency management.

The students participated in… (continue reading)