Physical activity: A promising adjunctive treatment for severe alcohol use disorder

Addict Behav. 2021 Feb:113:106667. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106667. Epub 2020 Sep 29.


Substance use disorder develops from complex interactions between socio-environmental and neurobiological factors. A neurocognitive model of addiction, the triadic model, proposes that Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is the result of an imbalance between the reflective and the impulsive subcomponents along with a disruption of the regulatory subcomponent. Physical activity is considered as an emerging treatment for severe AUD (sAUD). This short review examines the efficacy and mechanisms of action of physical intervention as an adjunctive treatment in severe AUD (sAUD) within the theoretical framework of the triadic model. Physical activity is a feasible, safe, and less stigmatizing approach than classical treatments. It improves sAUD patients' mental and physical comorbidities. The key finding of this short review is that physical activity could contribute to a rebalancing of the triadic model in sAUD patients by 1) improving neuroplasticity and cognitive functioning, 2) reducing impulsivity and urgency, and improving emotional regulation, and 3) reducing craving. This rebalancing could eventually reduce the risk of relapse. However, due to methodological issues, it remains difficult to observe an effect of physical activity on drinking outcomes. At best, a trend towards a reduction in alcohol consumption was noted. The mechanisms that could explain the benefits of physical activity in sAUD patients involve multiple physiological processes such as dopaminergic or glutamatergic transmission and signaling or neuroplasticity. Future randomized controlled trials should include neuropsychological and impulsivity assessments, in more controlled environments. Physical activity could contribute to a personalization of sAUD treatment using each subcomponent of the triadic model as a therapeutic target. Physical exercise could be an adjunctive treatment for sAUD patients, favoring the benefit of more usual treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapies. It could also be a stand-alone intervention in less severe patients.

Keywords: Alcohol use disorder; Cognitive impairments; Craving; Impulsivity; Physical activity; Rehabilitation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking
  • Alcoholism* / therapy
  • Craving
  • Exercise
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior