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Exploring the Role of Exercise in Teen Drug Abuse Prevention

Teen drug abuse

It is not uncommon these days for a parent to say (perhaps exasperatedly) to a child, “Go play outside!” After all, moms and dads know that their children will likely get some valuable exercise while playing outdoors instead of just sitting in front of the TV or computer.

Exercise is not just about improving fitness. Scientists have known about the non-physical benefits of exercise for a long time. Now, some researchers are optimistic about the value of exercise in preventing at-risk teenagers from succumbing to substance abuse.

The Medical Journal Article

Researchers from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and Cleveland Clinic published an article in December 2017 in the medical journal Birth Defects Research. In the article, the team concluded:

“We believe exercise (and, potentially assisted exercise) should be included as an adjunctive component to existing substance use treatment programs and should be offered as a preventative measure to adolescents at high risk for substance abuse based on their family history, mental health, genetic and neurocognitive profiles and other risk factors.”

An adjunctive treatment component is one that is applied in conjunction with established methods of drug abuse treatment (as opposed to replacing these tried-and-true approaches).

What is Assistive Exercise?

Assistive exercise utilizes some type of assistance mechanism to supplement a basic exercise method. Examples of assistive exercise may include a stationary bike or hand-powered cycle machine whose crank provides additional power while the exerciser is pedaling. These types of assistive exercise have shown promise in enhancing the quality of life for patients with Parkinson’s disease by improving their central motor control processing and similar body functions.

Exercise and the Teen Brain

Teen drug abuse

Another perceived benefit of exercise for teens suffering from or at risk of substance abuse is the production of additional dopamine in the body. Dopamine is known as the “reward neurotransmitter” because it mediates pleasure in the brain and is released during enjoyable situations. Naturally, dopamine can affect human behavior by providing positive reinforcement when certain actions are completed.

The trouble is, dopamine is also increased artificially by prescription medications like Adderall, Vicodin, or opioids as well as illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Therefore, if teens can get their dopamine from productive activities like assisted exercise, they may be less likely to seek out a dopamine rush from drugs.

Finally, exercise can counteract the so-called “imbalance” between emotional and cognitive decision-making in teenaged brains. Science has established that adolescent brains are not fully mature, which relates directly to why teens often engage in risky or impulsive behaviors (like taking drugs, for instance). The authors of the Birth Defects Research journal article opine that:

“Exercise may help to reinforce these underdeveloped connections between reward and regulatory processes and offset reward-seeking from substance use in adolescents.”

More Research is Needed

The researchers outlined their arguments in the journal article but did not conduct any experiments to bolster their claims. They are merely suggesting that substance abuse treatment providers try to incorporate exercise into their regimens for recovering teens. The researchers are recommending that formal randomized trials be conducted to test assistive cycling as an adjunctive treatment for substance abuse diseases.

Again, these scientists are not advocating any type of exercise as a substitute for conventional drug abuse prevention or treatment protocols. Teens who are suffering from substance abuse should seek treatment from a drug rehabilitation center if they want to maximize their odds of getting clean. But if exercise can aid teen addicts in their recovery process, then it is certainly an approach that rehab professionals should consider.

For more information on drug rehabilitation centers or substance abuse treatment for teens, contact us today. Our addiction specialists are standing by to help!

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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