Problematic alcohol consumption, including extreme intoxication and binge drinking, is on the rise. This is true globally, but especially so in Western cultures and the United States. Individuals aged 18-29 and especially students are the most likely to engage in problematic alcohol consumption, and more likely to use it as a coping mechanism for stress, which can result in future alcohol-related problems like alcohol addiction.
Cravings are one of the most important predictors of later life alcohol problems. At the same time, a variety of models link cravings to stress and poor mood. Exercise, conversely, is known to improve mood and reduce stress. Based on these established facts, a team of British researchers set out to determine whether a single bout of exercise would reduce alcohol cravings in university students. Their results are published in Addictive Behavior.
In the study, students recruited from Midlands University were screened for problematic alcohol consumption behavior. The 60 students meeting the criteria were then divided into three groups: an exercise condition, a distraction (coloring) condition, and a passive control.
The authors induced cravings with a short discussion centered on questions relating to alcohol. “Think about and describe your favorite beverage,” for example, or “Where is the typical place you would frequent to drink?” This was accompanied by a short video on mixing cocktails.
Participants were also asked to fill out a series of questionnaires: the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (ten items assessing drinking behaviors and alcohol-related problems), the Alcohol Urge Questionnaire (eight items exploring thoughts and feelings towards alcohol), and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (a list of 20 words describing feelings that participants rate from “not at all” to “extremely” descriptive of themselves).
The results of the study showed that alcohol craving was lower in the exercise condition group than the coloring or control groups. Both exercise and coloring improved mood and reduced anxiety, although exercise did so to a much greater degree. This also demonstrates, however, that mere distraction is not sufficient to reduce cravings. Rather, the physical exercise itself seems to be a key factor.
While the study does confirm the link between exercise and reduced cravings for alcohol immediately after, there are a number of caveats. First, we still don’t know exactly how exercise blunts cravings. It may be that it activates similar reward circuits, effectively satisfying the craving. Improved mood and reduced anxiety might also play a role, and they may need to occur beyond a certain threshold, which could explain the differences between exercise and distraction.
It also bears mentioning that not all cravings may be the same, and those elicited by thinking about drinking in an abstract manner may be very different from, say, an invitation to a drinking party or a night out on the town.
Finally, the extent and duration of the effects are unknown. Individuals were not asked to rate the intensity of their cravings, and reports were taken in a very short time following exercise. It would be useful to know for just how long the effects last, whether they are effective against all intensities of cravings, and whether regular exercise can help reduce cravings in the long-term.
Exercise is getting no shortage of attention from psychologists and practitioners these days. It’s been linked to improved mood and cognition, reduced anxiety and depression symptoms, improved memory, not to mention all the physiological benefits. That exercise can help combat alcohol cravings and protect against alcohol-related problems later in life, like addiction, may be just one more feather in its cap—but further research is needed to understand the mechanisms and limitations of exercise interventions.
The study, “Does an acute bout of moderate exercise reduce alcohol craving in university students?”, was authored by Aleksandra Gawor, Eef Hogervorst and Thomas Wilcockson, and published on July 29, 2021.