Science & Research

Exercise may help treat alcohol dependence, study shows

After 12 weeks of aerobic exercise, alcohol-dependent subjects report lower levels of consumption

By
Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2014

Aerobic exercise is associated with reduced alcohol consumption in individuals with alcohol dependency, University psychiatrists showed in a new study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Treatment.

Aerobic exercise may improve outcomes for alcohol-dependent individuals, according to recent findings from a psychological study led by Richard Brown, professor of psychiatry and human behavior. 

The results of the study, published in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Treatment, found that individuals in the early stage of recovery from alcohol dependence who began a regular aerobic exercise routine decreased their alcohol consumption.

Brown said exploring the effect of exercise on mental health has been a “long-standing interest” and that he remembered reading about such treatments while in graduate school in the 1980s.

After a period of years working at Butler Hospital, he said he felt “the time was right” to embark on this research, especially after noticing a lack of work on the topic in scientific literature.

After receiving permission to use a balcony area at Butler Hospital, Brown set up a gym, bringing in the necessary equipment and installing a sound system so music could be pumped in, he said.

The 25 participants met and exercised in groups weekly for 12 weeks.

Having the participants come in only once a week was purposeful, Brown said, because it established a sustainable exercise routine that participants would more likely integrate into their lives once the study ended. Researchers worked with participants throughout the course of the study to develop other ways to build exercise into their schedules beyond the group sessions, Brown said. “We didn’t want them to crash at the end of the 12 weeks.”

The researchers used standard interviews and questionnaires  to evaluate participants’ drinking habits over the course of the study. “The most basic outcome we were looking for was a reduction in drinking,” Brown said.

Ultimately, the results pointed to decreased drinking in alcohol-dependent patients who participated in aerobic exercise as well as normal treatment.

“Any substance abuse counselor or mental health provider working with alcohol-dependent patients in early recovery should consider recommending that their patients engage in aerobic exercise,” wrote Ana Abrantes, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and a co-author of the study, in an email to the Herald.

The “empirical support” established by Brown, Abrantes and colleagues is an “important step” in testing the idea that exercise could improve treatment outcomes for alcoholism — an idea that is “intuitively appealing,” wrote David Williams, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences, in an email to The Herald.

The participants, some recruited from a drug treatment program at Butler Hospital and others recruited from the community, were very positive about the effects of the exercise on their mental health. Many said the exercise regimen “gave structure to their lives that they hadn’t had before,” Brown said. The exercise program offered a nice alternative to drinking, he said, and many individuals were “very enthusiastic.”

There was an observable “improvement in their overall affect,” Abrantes wrote, adding that she also noticed “increased confidence that generalized to other areas of their life.”

Abrantes wrote that she fell into the work “entirely by accident” but that she “loved working on the project so much that (she) decided to pursue aerobic exercise as an intervention for other mental health issues.”

This study was preliminary given its small sample size, Brown said, adding that his team of researchers is hoping to do a larger, more definitive study, possibly with a control group that receives health education unrelated to exercise. The present study included a control group that was just given advice on exercise, but even this alone prompted significant increases in physical activity.

“This is an excellent, timely article,” wrote Michael Zvolensky, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston whose research focuses on anxiety, substance use and health, in an email to The Herald. He added that the work had a “methodologically sound design” and “represents a next step in alcohol treatment development.”

He pointed to the broad potential for future study, including clinical trials and exploration of the “mechanisms underlying the observed effects.”

“I think in general, the idea of getting people to engage in some kind of physical activity regimen during their recovery period is an area that warrants further study,” Brown said. “It is likely to be very promising.”

  • TheRationale

    Yes, put down the beer, get off the couch, and go running!