Weed Users Find Drug Can Make Exercise More Enjoyable and Boost Workout Motivation: Study

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Stock photo: Could marijuana be beneficial for exercise? iStock

Weed smokers are often stereotyped as being lazy. As a result, the drug is not often mentioned in the same breath as words like "exercise" and "physical activity." But a study that surveyed marijuana users in U.S. states where it is legal has found that more than 80 percent of participants take the drug shortly before or after exercise.

Furthermore, many of the participants reported that—surprisingly—cannabis motivated them to work out, helped them to enjoy exercise more and/or improved their recovery, according to the paper published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.

The research—conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder—is among the first studies to investigate the relationship between marijuana and physical activity.

"I have been studying exercise behavior for 20 years, and when we began investigating all the potential consequences, harmful and beneficial, of cannabis legalization, my colleagues and I began to wonder about the relationship of cannabis to exercise behavior," Angela Bryan, senior author of the study from Boulder's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, told Newsweek.

"On the one hand, the stereotype is that cannabis leads to laying around on the couch eating Doritos—decidedly not exercising. On the other hand, epidemiological work shows that long-term cannabis users have lower BMI, less risk for Type II diabetes, better insulin function, etc.," she said.

"Further, there are anecdotal reports that endurance athletes use cannabis on their long workouts, and sports organizations, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency and the NFL, until recently banned cannabis as potentially performance enhancing."

To cast light on this quandary, the team decided to investigate the issue—one that is particularly important given the drug is now legal in 10 U.S. states for recreational use and several more for medicinal use.

In their study, the researchers surveyed around 600 adult marijuana users—with a mean age of around 37—in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, to gain an understanding of their exercise patterns and relationship with the drug.

One of the questions asked was, "Do you use cannabis within one hour before or four hours after exercise?" Surprisingly, nearly 82 percent of respondents said yes.

"The first surprise was that over 80 percent of the more than 600 cannabis users self-reported that they use cannabis either before or after exercising," Bryan said.

In a follow-up question, the researchers asked 345 of the people who used cannabis with exercise—what they referred to as "co-users"—whether they were more likely to use the drug before or after exercise. They found that the majority—67 percent—reported doing so both before and after exercise, rather than one or the other.

The researchers also asked the participants about their reasons for using cannabis with exercise. They found that seventy percent said it increased their enjoyment of exercise, 78 percent said it boosted their recovery and 52 percent said it boosted their motivation.

"Given that these are all recognized barriers to exercise, it is possible that cannabis might actually serve as a benefit to exercise engagement," the authors wrote in the study.

Intriguingly, the team found that co-users did about 43 minutes more exercise per week on average than non-users.

"Those folks who reported cannabis use with exercise were actually exceeding American College of Sports Medicine recommendations for minimum levels of physical activity and were exercising more than cannabis users who did not co-use with exercise," Bryan said.

However, only 38 percent of co-users said that cannabis helped with their actual performance, and it is important to note that some previous studies have indicated the drug may actually harm physical performance.

Despite these intriguing results, the authors stress that the study does not provide concrete proof that marijuana boosts exercise—and thus they do not necessarily recommend the use of the drug—because it contains several "limitations."

Firstly, "it is a convenience sample of cannabis users who were willing to fill out our survey and all the data were self-reported," Bryan said. "Probably the biggest limitation is that for whatever historical, social or political reason, cannabis legalization has taken place almost exclusively in the most physically active states in the U.S.—Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, etc. So this could be an artifact of cannabis users simply being in states where people are more likely to exercise."

"To rule out these limitations, we need carefully controlled studies, which are challenging to do given the federal legal status of cannabis," Bryan said. "However, one implication that I think is clear from our data is that the image of a cannabis user as someone who is largely sedentary does not seem to be valid. The average level of physical activity in our sample of cannabis users was relatively high. All that said, I would not be comfortable concluding that cannabis is good for exercise, because the data we have thus far are not causal."

While the team did not investigate the possible reasons behind the observations of the co-users, they do offer a speculative explanation for why cannabis may be helpful for exercise.

"There is evidence to suggest that certain cannabinoids dampen pain perception, and we also know that the receptors cannabis binds to in the brain are very similar to the receptors that are activated naturally during the runners high," Arielle Gillman, co-author of the study, said in a statement. "Theoretically, you could imagine that if it could dampen pain and induce an artificial 'runner's high,' it could keep people motivated," she said.

The authors also suggest that the anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects of cannabis could be a factor among those who reported it helped their recovery after exercise. On the other hand, they do point out that there is some research indicating cannabinoids may actually interfere with proper recovery from exercise.

Nevertheless, the results of the research echo early data from another similar study currently being conducted by Boulder scientists, which is comparing the activity levels of older adults who use marijuana to those who don't.

While the results of this study are yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal—so they should be viewed with caution—preliminary data indicates that after partaking in a 16-week exercise program, the cannabis users exercised more than the non-users.

"As we get older, exercise starts to hurt, and that is one reason older adults don't exercise as much," Bryan said. "If cannabis could ease pain and inflammation, helping older adults to be more active that could be another benefit."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Angela Bryan.