Can exercise be an effective approach for therapy to combat addiction?

Allen KellyWell, it’s been a fun and memorable last 30 months in Trondheim, but unfortunately its soon time for me to leave the sunny shores of Norway and return to the…equally sunny shores of Scotland. In the past two and a half years I’ve had friends visit from the UK, all of whom were curious about the unique aspects of life here that set Scots apart from our nearest Scandinavian neighbor;

Why is everyone here so tall and good looking?

What’s that weird teabag thing everyone puts in their upper lip?

Why are there no Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets?

Despite these subtle disparities, in my opinion our two countries aren’t that different. In many ways, Scotland and Norway share a number of cultural similarities. Population size is comparable (5.30 vs 5.05 million, respectively); the major industries include fishing, oil and more recently wind power. As for the people, we both love nature and the outdoor life. We’re both crazy about football, despite having national teams that don’t often sparkle on the pitch. And one thing I did notice straight away upon my arrival in Norway; we both like a drink. Nothing wrong with that of course, particularly when the statistics suggest that most of the EU is no different. However despite the high cost and relatively limited access to alcohol, current figures demonstrate a growing trend towards both increased overall alcohol consumption in Norway, as well as a move towards semi-regular binge drinking habits1 more typically associated with the UK. This incurs obvious social consequences, with the associated health risks arguably assuming the majority of that burden.

Read also: Wine have good effects on the heart – if you also exercise

Alcohol and cardiovascular disease

Alkohol og brystkreftNeurological damage and liver failure are the two major health complications most people think of when it comes to alcohol abuse, but it may come as a surprise that cardiovascular complications rank at least as high on the list of potential hazards, particularly in cases of acute alcohol poisoning. Consumption of 15 units or more (about 7 and a half pints of beer, or one and a half bottles of wine2) can induce serious cardiac rhythm disturbances, most notably atrial fibrillation. Long term abuse can also lead to hypertension, and is a leading cause of non-ischemic dilated cardiomyopathy3. Combined with the resultant weight gain commonly associated with high alcohol consumption, these factors compound the risk of stroke and myocardial infarction. Manifestation of these health defects, most notably atrial fibrillation and hypertension, can occur long before symptoms of liver failure appear.

Combatting alcohol dependence: Could exercise be the answer?

MedFakNTNUtrening_9For those who become dependent on alcohol, the road to recovery can be a long and arduous one. Treatment involves a multifaceted approach of detoxification, medication and behavioural therapy designed to address all aspects of the patients’ life. While no one specific approach can be successful for rehabilitation, recent evidence suggests that exercise training may be an effective approach for therapy to combat addiction. The mechanism of action is not entirely clear, but what is known is that the centre of the brain associated with pleasure and reward (controlled to a large extent by dopamine) is targeted by addiction. Exercise training is thought to effectively compete with this pathway, blocking the reinforcement of reward induced by alcohol and replacing it with a healthy, natural reward response stimulated through training.

Read also: Stored for the future

A recent meta-analysis by Lynch and colleagues (2013) of patient and animal research into the influence of exercise on substance abuse suggests that there is good evidence that exercise may be useful in reducing the chance of the formation of addictive behaviour as well as in the recovery from addiction4. Many recovering alcoholics swear by exercise training as their “healthy addiction”, which became a central part of their life on the road to sobriety. In the documentary ‘Running with Demons’, Todd Crandell describes how participating in Iron Man and ultra-marathon events played a pivotal role in his rescue from drug and alcohol addiction which ruined a promising ice hockey career and ultimately threatened to claim his life. Now a licensed chemical dependency counselor, he runs Racing for Recovery, a non-profit organization combining counseling and support group sessions with organized athletic events designed to promote a healthy lifestyle away from alcohol dependency.

Read also: Can exercise help elderly to live longer at home?

CERGs egen t-rex, Allen, har gitt alt og veksler her med Inger Lise under St. Olavsloppets første dag.

Quite exhausted Allen Kelly exchaning with Inger-Lise Aamot during last years St. Olavs Loppet.

Perhaps my comparison to Scotland and Norway at the start wasn’t entirely accurate. Yes it’s true, we both like a drink. But Norwegians also love to exercise. I return to Scotland next week a fitter, healthier and more sober man than the one who arrived here two and a half years ago. I have to admit that I exercise more, drink much less, and I don’t miss alcohol one bit. Hopefully when I get back I can spread this message to my friends, my family and anyone else who wants to kick out the drink from their lives; get out of the pub and into your running shoes, it’s time to get healthy.

Allan Kelly, postdoctor at CERG


1: Alcohol consumption in Norway – fact sheet; Norwegian Institute of Public Health –

2: Health effects of alcohol – Alcohol and heart disease;

3: O’Keefe JH, Bhatti SK, Bajwa A, DiNicolantonio JJ and Lavie CJ; Alcohol and cardiovascular health: the dose makes the poison…or the remedy. Mayo Clin Proc 2014; 89(3): 382-393

4: Lynch WJ, Peterson AB, Sanchez V, Abel J, and Smith MA; Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: A neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2013; 37(8): 1622-1644



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