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Exercise Reduces Cravings for Marijuana


People who are marijuana (cannabis) dependent could reduce their cravings for pot if they exercise. A new study from Vanderbilt researchers reports that exercise cut pot smoking by more than half in people who did not want treatment to help them quit.

Running on a treadmill cut marijuana smoking

A research team selected eight females and four males (average age, 25 years) whom they identified as being dependent on marijuana. Before the study, each of the participants said they smoked on average nearly six joints per day (range, 1.8 to 10.9). The investigators developed an individualized exercise program for each subject that allowed them to achieve 60 to 70 percent of maximum heart rate.

The exercise program involved running on a treadmill for 30 minutes during 10 sessions over a two-week period. Before and after each session, the participants looked at marijuana-use related stimuli and remarked on how much they craved the drug. They also documented their actual marijuana use per day during the study.

After just five exercise sessions, marijuana use among the participants had already declined by more than 50 percent to an average of 2.8 joints daily (range, 0.9 to 5.4), according to co-author Peter Martin, MD, director of the Vanderbilt Addiction Center. During post-study follow-up, marijuana use averaged 4.1 joints per day (range, 1.1 to 9.5).

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The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that 28.5 million Americans age 12 and older had abused marijuana at least once during the year before they were surveyed. Since 1998, admission rates for marijuana dependence have climbed from 7 percent of total addiction treatment admissions to 16 percent by 2009.

Given there are no medications to treat marijuana dependence, the discovery that exercise may reduce cannabis use may prove helpful as part of a treatment program. Martin noted that “this is big considering the magnitude of the cannabis problem in the US.”

Another co-author, Mac Buchowski, PhD, director of the Vanderbilt Energy Balance Laboratory, added that this discovery “becomes a huge issue with medical marijuana now available in some states,” since “what looks like an innocent, recreational habit could become a disease that has to be treated.”

Short-term effects of using marijuana may include difficulty thinking and solving problems, distorted perceptions, euphoria, and impaired memory. Recent research has indicated that smoking marijuana may predispose individuals to development of psychosis.

This was the first study to show that exercise can cut marijuana use among people who say they don’t want to quit. The results of this pilot study suggest a larger, controlled trial is necessary, and that future research should also explore longer exercise programs, marijuana dependent individuals who want to quit, and a more diverse (age, ethnicity) population.

Buchowski MS et al. PLoS One 6(3): e17465. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0017465