Working out can improve chances of staying off drugs

Chicago TribuneJune 25, 2013 


Todd Crandell, left, 46 founder and counselor of Racing for Recovery, chats with Matt Boston, 40, both from Sylvania, Ohio, on a picnic bench in May Sylvania. Racing for Recovery is a fitness-promotion program designed to battle substance abuse

MADALYN RUGGIERO — Chicago Tribune

The human brain experiences a chemical reward when we exercise, and several studies indicate this can be used as an alternative reward for those battling addiction.

“I’ve abused alcohol my entire life,” said 40-year-old Matt Boston of Sylvania, Ohio. “Running is one of the most important parts of my recovery.”

A husband and father of a toddler, he drove home drunk last December. The fear of what he’d done weighed on him, so he used counseling to get sober. But he extols running as what helps him stay clean. Matt just finished his first marathon (in 3 hours and 54 minutes) and hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon one day.

“I’m in the best shape of my life right now,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the exercise component.”

A former-addict-turned- Ironman-triathlete helped Matt get, and stay, clean.

“I took my first drink when I was 13,” said Todd Crandell, an addictions counselor and founder of Sylvania’s Racing for Recovery – a fitness-promotion program designed to battle substance abuse ( After that first drink, Crandell’s life spiraled out of control for the next 13 years.

“I had a plan to be a pro hockey player, but I started hanging out with kids who were doing drugs,” he said. “In my senior year of high school, I was expelled for doing cocaine on a hockey bus.”

He went from being offered college hockey scholarships to a drugged-out death spiral that included heroin, meth, pot, Valium and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

“At 26, I quit everything all at once,” Crandell said. “It was after my third DUI. I blew a 0.36 at noon.”

That’s 4.5 times the legal limit.

Quitting is only the beginning. It’s staying clean that’s the trick, and fitness became Crandell’s new passion. When he stopped drinking and doing drugs, he immediately shifted to lifting weights and cleaning up his diet. This was followed by getting back into hockey, and he got good enough to play semipro for a while. After that, he began a running program, and this led him to complete 23 Ironman triathlons.

In 2011 researchers from Vanderbilt University did a study published in PLOS ONE that involved making a dozen marijuana users run on treadmills for 30 minutes 10 times over a two-week period. These were very heavy users, and they saw a dramatic drop in their cravings and their use of marijuana (a decrease of more than 50 percent) after just a few exercise sessions. Exercise was the only intervention.

What’s interesting is that these people were deemed cannabis-dependent, and they didn’t want treatment to help them stop smoking pot. The exercise alone made them cut their marijuana use by more than half.

And it’s not just pot. A 2011 analysis of research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry revealed how exercise is a powerful tool for reducing self-administered use of a host of other mind-altering substances, including cocaine, meth, nicotine and alcohol.

And beyond recovery, exercise can mitigate the brain damage. Because that kind of “analysis” requires dissection, we need to extrapolate data from rodents.

A 2012 study in the neuroscience journal Synapse let rats go on a meth bender, and it burned out their dopamine and serotonin receptors.

After the meth, some of the rats were left to be cage potatoes, and others were made to run. The results show that the running rats significantly reduced the meth-induced brain damage, as well as experienced a profound positive effect on dopamine and serotonin receptors.

And the lazy rats? The Swiss-cheesing brain effects of the drug lingered.

All of this is why the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., makes fitness part of the recovery program.

“The 12 steps are the priority, and exercise is a coping skill and an outlet that involves learning how to take better care of your physical being,” said Jennifer Dewey, fitness director for Betty Ford. “Patients work out with us every day. It’s a mandatory part of the treatment program. It’s one of the critical components of sustaining sobriety.”

For Crandell, the message that exercise supports recovery from addiction is helping his program grow. Crandell, who also speaks on the subject of recovery and has published a book about going from addict to Ironman, began Racing for Recovery in 2001 as a way for people who got clean to stay clean. The free program has an annual 5K foot race, but it also hosts Olympic-distance triathlons and half Ironmans in many cities.

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