Many people who frequently use cannabis also seem to be people who frequently exercise.
Defying stereotypes, many people who frequently use cannabis also seem to be people who frequently exercise, according to the first large study of legal marijuana and exercise habits.
The study finds that many people who report using cannabis in the hours before or after a workout believe that it makes their exercise more enjoyable and may help motivate them to get out and be active. Fewer of those who exercise and use pot maintain that it actually improves their physical performance while exercising.
When we think of marijuana users, many people harbor preconceptions about their lives and lifestyles. The image that comes up for many of us, often cobbled together from watching The Dude in the movie “The Big Lebowski” or the misadventures of Harold and Kumar, is of the laid-back stoner who dreamily takes yet another hit on the bong.
“The usual stereotype is of someone lying on his couch for hours, blissed out and eating Doritos,” says Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Boulder, who oversaw the new study.
Recently, the possibility that this cliché might be accurate had begun to worry her and her colleagues. Her lab studies health behavior and the actions and decisions that tend to promote or reduce people’s health.
She and her colleagues realized that legalization of recreational cannabis use, which had occurred or was about to in several states, including Colorado, would most likely increase usage. But current government regulations restrict research with the drug, which remains illegal at the federal level.
As a result, little has been known about the possible effects of regular cannabis use on behaviors that can affect health, including exercise.
“If using cannabis encourages people to be sedentary and overeat, that obviously would be a concern,” Dr. Bryan says.
But she and her colleagues had no idea whether or not that scenario was true. They sought to find out with their new study, which was published last month in Frontiers in Public Health.
For the study, they first designed a simple questionnaire that asked people some general questions about themselves, including their age, gender, height and weight. More specific questions delved into their relationships with marijuana and workouts.
The questionnaire probed how often people exercised or used cannabis and whether they combined the two, using the drug in some form within an hour before or four hours after a workout. It also asked if people felt that using marijuana made their workout more pleasurable, upped or reduced their desire to work out, and possibly hastened their recovery afterward.
Then the researchers sought out cannabis users in several of the states where the drug is legal, including Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon, recruiting participants through websites, dispensaries and clinics. They did not approach gyms or similar sites, because their interest was in how cannabis use affects exercise and not the other way around, Dr. Bryan says.
Eventually, they wound up with responses from more than 600 men and women who used cannabis, most of whom said they also exercised at least sometimes.
The researchers had expected that some, but probably not a majority, of these people would report swallowing, smoking or slathering on cannabis before or after exercise.
But they were wrong — and by a wide margin. It turned out that almost 82 percent of them said that they used cannabis around the time of their workouts.
This group tended to be younger, leaner and more often male than those who did not use marijuana in conjunction with exercise. They also exercised more often and imbibed or slathered on more cannabis.
And about 70 percent of them reported that using marijuana increased their enjoyment of workouts, while nearly 80 percent felt it enhanced their recovery, and more than half were convinced it motivated them to be physically active.
Only about 35 percent, though, held that it actually raised their exercise performance.
These findings should not be seen an endorsement of marijuana as an adjunct to exercise, Dr. Bryan says. But they do suggest that some of our entrenched ideas about cannabis and lifestyle may be outdated.
“Our concern going in was that cannabis use would be detrimental to physical activity,” Dr. Bryan says. “Our evidence does not support that idea.”
The new study’s results are severely limited, though, by being self-assessments from self-selected volunteers who live in possibly unrepresentative states, she adds.
“The states that have legalized cannabis also happen to be the states that we know are the most physically active,” she says. Whether or not people in less-active states would respond similarly to cannabis if and when it is legalized there is uncertain.
The survey also tells us nothing about how cannabis affects people during exercise, including whether it increases injuries, risk-taking or, as some anecdotal evidence indicates, the tendency to giggle and grow easily distracted by the puffiness of clouds while hiking under the influence.
It also cannot explain how cannabis affects people’s feeling about exercise, although Dr. Bryan suspects that changes in brain chemicals, pain sensitivity and inflammation prompted by the drug are probably involved.
She would like to see far more research into cannabis and exercise, she says, but funding and approval for relevant experiments remain difficult to obtain, given current federal regulations.
By Gretchen Reynolds
Copyright 2019 The NY Times