Exercise-based treatments for substance use disorders: evidence, theory, and practicality

Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2015 Jan;41(1):7-15. doi: 10.3109/00952990.2014.976708. Epub 2014 Nov 14.


Background: Epidemiological studies reveal that individuals who report risky substance use are generally less likely to meet physical activity guidelines (with the exception of certain population segments, such as adolescents and athletes). A growing body of evidence suggests that individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) are interested in exercising and that they may derive benefits from regular exercise, in terms of both general health/fitness and SUD recovery.

Objectives: The aims of this paper were to: (i) summarize the research examining the effects of exercise-based treatments for SUDs; (ii) discuss the theoretical mechanisms and practical reasons for investigating this topic; (iii) identify the outstanding relevant research questions that warrant further inquiry; and (iv) describe potential implications for practice.

Methods: The following databases were searched for peer-reviewed original and review papers on the topic of substance use and exercise: PubMed Central, MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, and CINAHL Plus. Reference lists of these publications were subsequently searched for any missed but relevant manuscripts. Identified papers were reviewed and summarized by both authors.

Results: The limited research conducted suggests that exercise may be an effective adjunctive treatment for SUDs. In contrast to the scarce intervention trials to date, a relative abundance of literature on the theoretical and practical reasons supporting the investigation of this topic has been published.

Conclusions: Definitive conclusions are difficult to draw due to diverse study protocols and low adherence to exercise programs, among other problems. Despite the currently limited and inconsistent evidence, numerous theoretical and practical reasons support exercise-based treatments for SUDs, including psychological, behavioral, neurobiological, nearly universal safety profile, and overall positive health effects.

Keywords: Exercise; review; substance use disorders; theoretical mechanisms.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Health Promotion
  • Humans
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy*