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Could physical activity help minimise drug and alcohol use?

Posted on December 17th 2020

Figures and surveys have shown that high-risk alcohol consumption increased during lockdown periods, while exercise decreased.

Now researchers are exploring whether increased physical activity could help reduce alcohol and drug misuse long after social restrictions have lifted. 

A research team, co-led by Professor of Health Services Research, Professor Adrian Taylor, recently carried out two reviews of existing studies, which showed that little data was available and more work was needed to understand the links between physical activity and its effects on alcohol and drug use. 

By understanding the evidence already available, the researchers are able to take the next steps towards creating evidence for the benefits of physical activity – not specific to lockdown – and explore the further work that needs to be completed in this area.

Dr Tom Thompson from the Community and Primary Care Research Group (CPCRG) at the University of Plymouth, who co-led the study, said: “Physical activity is known to be important for our health and wellbeing, but whether it helps to minimise drug and alcohol use and, if so, to what extent and which factors we need to consider, isn’t an area that’s been well enough explored.”

The first review showed some weak evidence of physical activity interventions preventing alcohol initiation but not consumption, and there was a lack of evidence for any long-term effects or any rigorous effects on substance use. The evidence was a mix of studies on whether physical activity stops drug and alcohol use in the first place, and/or whether it limits someone’s use after they’ve started.

The second review looked at qualitative data – mainly people’s views of physical activity for alcohol or substance use. The studies revealed useful information about how physical activity was being used by regular alcohol and other substance users to manage their use and what type of support was most acceptable and feasible. The review lays the foundations for more rigorous future research.

PenARC Senior Research Fellow Dr Kerryn Husk, who provided methodological support to the study, said: “A real benefit is the inclusion of both high-quality qualitative and quantitative studies in this comprehensive review.  This allowed us to say something about not only whether these interventions work, but also how people describe participating in them and the benefits they may experience.”

Dr Thompson said of the reviews: “These publications will now form the backbone in a call for submissions of further research articles for a special issue in the international journal Mental Health and Physical Activity entitled, ‘Extending the evidence for the role of physical activity in supporting positive changes among individuals who use alcohol and other substances’, along with further work that we plan to do in the area.”

The work was funded by the NIHR Research for Patient Benefit programme and supported by PenARC. The project involved researchers from the University of Plymouth, University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, the University of Bristol, King’s College London, the University of Southampton, and Gary Wallace from Plymouth City Council.



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