Alcohol and substance use disorders have major health, social, and economic consequences for individuals, carers, family and friends, employers, and public services. Various legal, economic, social, and educational approaches aim to prevent alcohol and substance misuse but further ways are needed to help the most vulnerable. Usually they are treated with a variety of drug treatments and counselling based approaches, but these are often ineffective. Drug treatments present their own problems (e.g. addiction to the drug being used to treat the disorder and bad side effects) so there is a need for options which may not have these complications and improve treatment.
Physical activity (including lifestyle activity such as walking, structured exercise, and organised sport) could help in preventing and treating alcohol and substance use disorders, perhaps because it diverts attention away from the addiction, helps to build confidence or improves mood, and reduces withdrawal symptoms. Physical activity, unlike drug therapies, has little or no bad side effects and is potentially cheap and easily accessible.
This study aimed to examine the research on physical activity in relation to alcohol and substance use disorders so that it could be better understood if and how physical activity could help prevent and treat those with these problems. The findings from the review will be summarised and used to get the views of services providers, funders, service users and other people, on what the best interventions were and for whom they should be offered. The possible costs of such services were estimated.
All the information was gathered and presented in a final report (and made available on a website) to provide people with important practical information on what has worked so far, and what may be most effective in the future for an alternative approach to preventing and treating alcohol and substance use disorders.
The study was led by Dr Tom Thompson, Research Fellow at Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, who commented: “We wanted to investigate the evidence about physical activity in relation to these disorders because it could help in prevention, reduction, and treatment. It may be that physical activity diverts attention away from the addiction, helps to build confidence or improves mood, reduces withdrawal symptoms, and supports a shift towards a healthy identity which is incompatible with excessive alcohol or substance use. It is also possible those who engage in physical activity in their younger years are less likely to develop problems with alcohol and substances later in life. Compared with drug treatments and other therapies, physical activity has little or no bad side effects and is potentially cheap and easily accessible. We are keen to make sure we are asking the right questions (and looking for the right answers) which will be useful for people in all areas of services. We are engaging with both users and providers of alcohol and substance use services throughout the project to keep us focused on working towards practical and meaningful findings.”