This morning I read about a prominent researcher who has received a $15.7 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study whether rigorous exercise can reduce an addict’s craving for drugs.
As an addict/alcoholic who once ran the last six miles of a marathon in my socks because my shoes were killing me, the answer is NO. Let me say it again: NO.
Maybe some addicts will benefit from the weight loss and sense of accomplishment but we walk a very, very thin line between healthy and unhealthy behaviors and many of us can’t see that line.
According to the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Madhukar Trivedi:
“Exercise would give people who abuse drugs an alternative ritualistic activity that may help them disengage from their drug-related behaviors while also improving their health and quality of life.”
The problem with giving addicts/alcoholics “an alternative ritualistic activity” is the risk of them abusing their new “alternative ritualistic activity.” Simply put, the last thing you want to give an addict many addicts is “an alternative ritualistic activity.”
My primary drug of choice is alcohol, followed by “non-addictive” marijuana (which I smoked everyday for years.) But the first “drug” I abused was endorphins – those opioid peptides produced by our pituitary gland and hypothalamus during exercise, excitement, pain and orgasm. They resemble opiates in their ability to block pain and create a feeling of well-being.
There I was, 8-years-old, standing by the side of a pool at my first swim practice and the coach asked, “Which stroke do you want to learn?” My answer: “The hardest.”
And so I became one of the best butterfliers in Michigan in the early 1970’s. Man, I loved that high. Weightless, heart pumping and all those opioid peptides racing around my 12-year-old brain.
By age 15 I had burned out. I quick swimming and immediately picked up drinking and pot smoking. I quit drinking at age 21 because I knew I had “issues” and stayed with pot and my new passion – running. I kept daily journals of the miles I ran, 20-30 and sometimes 40+ miles a week.
At age 29 I picked up drinking and drugging again – and quit running. But by the ripe old age of 35, I realized the drinking and drugging could be enhanced by exercise. And so I took up the insane sport of triathlon.
I got up at 5:15 a.m. every morning. Monday, Wednesday, Friday I swam – training with a Master’s team with some of the best Master triathletes in the world. Tuesday I ran back and forth across a monster, 1/2 mile bridge with a good 10 percent grade. Thursday – speed training on a track. Saturday and Sunday on the bike.
It wasn’t just the high I wanted. I needed something to prove to myself that I was not an alcoholic – that I was in control of my life. How could my life possibly be unmanageable if I could get up every morning and swim a couple of miles, get my daughter to daycare, work 8 hours, make dinner, drink a bottle or two of wine and sing a lullaby to my daughter?
I spent thousands of dollars on my new addiction: bicycles, heart monitors, running shoes, cycling shoes, bathing suits, goggles, race fees, travel, hotel rooms, protein powders and energy jells. I ignored my family while I trained and became ornery when I missed a workout. I obsessed over my training and became despondent when I did poorly in a race.
Kinda sounds like the behavior of an addict, don’t ya think? And if you are dual-diagnosed, like me, you bounce from one addictive behavior to another to self-medicate.
I quit drinking and drugging 12 years ago but I must constantly monitor my exercise. My therapist says 4-workouts a week. That’s all. My little addict brain convinces me that scuba diving isn’t really exercise, so it doesn’t count. Neither is a brisk 10-mile ride on my beach cruiser on a Sunday afternoon. That’s just goofin’ around. Saturday morning spin class, followed by boot camp isn’t really two workouts because they are back to back classes – meaning it’s really just one loooooong workout. Right?
At the gym I am the weird lady on the spin bike foaming at the mouth. After kick-boxing I am dripping – completely soaked. People look at me funny and don’t say much while I’m working out.
And yes, I really did run the last six miles of a marathon without shoes. The other two marathons I kept my shoes on the whole 26.2 miles.
I ask these researchers to be very, very careful. You could be introducing recovered addicts to their next addiction. Exercise addiction is dangerous, especially since we are admired for our discipline and determination and rewarded with medals and trophies.
My addiction constantly morphs from exercise, drinking, drugging and long hours in the newsroom. I must constantly watch myself, check my behaviors, motives and drive.
So, my plea to the researchers, be careful. Be very, very careful.