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Cannabis Found to Increase Exercise Enjoyment and Motivation

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

marijuana and exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to recent research, cannabis use enhances both enjoyment of and recovery from exercise, and results in users exercising longer than nonusers
  • It’s an important public health issue as many Americans do not meet minimum exercise recommendations of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days per week, or 20 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise three days a week. The fear is that legalizing cannabis for medical and/or recreational use may worsen public health by promoting even more sedentary behavior
  • On average, those who used cannabis before or after exercise reported getting 159.7 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, compared to non-co-users who reported an average of 103.5 minutes/week
  • After using linear regression to control for confounding factors such as demographics, age and gender, the use of cannabis with exercise was still associated with an average of 43.4 more minutes of weekly aerobic exercise
  • While runner’s high is typically attributed to the release of endorphins, running also dramatically increases the cannabinoid anandamide in your body. According to research, your “cannabinoid receptors are crucial for main aspects of a runner’s high”

Cannabis, better known as marijuana, has been used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years.1 The cannabis plant contains more than 60 different cannabinoids — chemical compounds the human body is uniquely equipped to respond to and benefit from.

Two primary cannabinoids are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the psychoactive component responsible for the “high” associated with recreational marijuana use. Cannabinoids interact with your body by way of naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors embedded in cell membranes throughout your body, i.e., your endocannabinoid system (ECS).

There are cannabinoid receptors in your brain, lungs, liver, kidneys, immune system and more, and the therapeutic (and psychoactive) properties of marijuana occur when a cannabinoid activates your cannabinoid receptors.

Your body also produces naturally occurring endocannabinoids that stimulate your cannabinoid receptors and produce a variety of important physiologic processes. In short, your body is hard-wired to respond to cannabinoids through this unique cannabinoid receptor system.

While we still don’t know exactly how far its impact on your health reaches, it’s known that cannabinoid receptors play an important role in many biological processes, including metabolic regulation, pain, anxiety, bone growth and immune function.2

Interestingly, cannabis may also have a beneficial impact on fitness. One persistent stigma surrounding marijuana use is that it makes you lethargic, lazy and unmotivated, but recent research suggests it might not have such a bad influence on your motivation to exercise after all. In fact, the contrary may be true.3,4,5,6,7

People Who Use Cannabis Before or After Working Out Get More Exercise

According to research8 published in Frontiers in Public Health, cannabis use actually enhances both enjoyment of and recovery from exercise. “This study represents an important step in clarifying cannabis use with exercise among adult users in states with legal cannabis markets,” the researchers note.9

Indeed, it’s an important public health issue as many Americans already do not meet minimum exercise recommendations10,11 of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise five days per week, or 20 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise three days a week. The fear is that legalizing cannabis for medical and/or recreational use may worsen public health by promoting even more sedentary behavior.

In the Frontiers in Public Health study, the researchers conducted an online survey to examine the attitudes and behaviors of adults who use cannabis in states with full legal access. Results revealed 81.7% of the 494 respondents “endorsed using cannabis concurrently with exercise,” and those who used cannabis before or after exercise actually worked out longer than those who didn’t.

“In addition, the majority of participants who endorsed using cannabis shortly before/after exercise reported that doing so enhances their enjoyment of and recovery from exercise, and approximately half reported that it increases their motivation to exercise,” the researchers note.

Just how much more exercise did those who used cannabis get on the days they worked out? On average, they reported getting 159.7 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, compared to non-co-users who reported an average of 103.5 minutes/week.

After using linear regression to control for confounding factors such as demographics, age and gender, the use of cannabis with exercise was still associated with an average of 43.4 more minutes of weekly aerobic exercise. According to the authors:12

“Consistent with this finding, 40.1% of cannabis users who used with exercise met or exceeded American College of Sports Medicine's recommendations of a minimum of 150 min of aerobic exercise per week, compared to only 28.7% of cannabis users who did not endorse using with exercise.

This discrepancy was not limited to aerobic activity. Cannabis users who used cannabis during exercise also reported an average of 37.4 more minutes of anaerobic exercise than cannabis users who did not use during exercise.

After controlling for the demographic variables that were different between groups (age and gender), cannabis use during exercise was still associated with 30.2 more minutes of reported anaerobic exercise …

These findings supported our hypothesis that co-users may be co-using because they believe it contributes to recovery after exercise. The findings also suggest that co-use may facilitate enjoyment of exercise, and (for a subset of co-users) motivation to exercise.

Given that these are recognized barriers to exercise, it is possible that cannabis might actually serve as a benefit to exercise engagement. Finally, the attitudes toward co-use and performance in our participants seem to concur with studies suggesting that cannabis use does not enhance exercise performance for most users …

Given both the spreading legalization of cannabis and the low rates of physical activity in the U.S., it behooves public health officials to understand the potential effects — both beneficial and harmful — of cannabis use on exercise behaviors.”

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Runner’s High Explained

As mentioned, cannabinoids affect your body by acting on your ECS. There are two primary ECS receptors: cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2). While CB1 is typically thought of as being primarily in the brain and CB2 primarily in the immune system, both types of receptors are in fact found throughout your body.

One of the two cannabinoids your body produces naturally is called anandamide — a nod to the word “ananda,” the Sanskrit word for “bliss,” as it attaches to the same CB1 receptors that THC attaches to.

Interestingly, while runner’s high is typically attributed to the release of endorphins, running also dramatically increases anandamide in your body, and as noted in one 2015 study,13 your “cannabinoid receptors are crucial for main aspects of a runner’s high.”

Earlier research14 has also confirmed your ECS is part of the mechanism behind exercise-induced pain relief “and possibly other physiological and psychological adaptations to exercise.”

Coincidentally, anandamide not only targets the CB1 receptor, but it also influences opioid and endorphin receptors. Not surprisingly then, the higher your anandamide level, the better and less anxious you feel.

As explained by board-certified clinical nutritionist and expert on phytocannabinoids, Carl Germano, “That makes sense, because anandamide hits the receptors in the brain that are involved in reward and mood.”

Does Cannabis Use Make You Fatter?

Another common perception of cannabis use is that it will make you fatter, courtesy of the infamous “munchies” that users report. Alas, here too studies have found discrepancies that refute common beliefs.

While research 15 has indeed linked marijuana use to a high-calorie diet, others have shown that while marijuana users do gain weight, they do so at a reduced rate compared to nonusers.16 As noted by the authors of this March 2019 study:17

“Pre-clinical studies indicate increased food intake and weight gain as cannabinoid effects. Cross-sectional epidemiological studies, however, indicate lower prevalence of obesity among cannabis users …

This new prospective study builds from anecdotes, pre-clinical studies and cross-sectional evidence on inverse association linking cannabis use and obesity and shows an inverse cannabis-BMI increase association.”

Another study 18 published in 2017 also noted that heavy users of cannabis were more likely to have lower body mass index than nonusers or light users, and a third paper19 published in 2018, aptly titled “Theoretical Explanation for Reduced Body Mass Index and Obesity Rates in Cannabis Users,” went so far as to say that “For many patients, cannabis may be a better option for weight loss than surgery or pharmaceuticals.”

Here, the conclusion they reached was that even though cannabis users consume more calories, they still have “significantly reduced” BMI and lower rates of obesity. The mechanism behind this paradoxical effect, the researchers claim, is due to the fact that cannabis causes rapid and long-lasting downregulation of the CB1 receptor, which “reduces energy storage and increases metabolic rates.”

Understanding Motivation

Now, I don’t recommend using cannabis to motivate yourself to exercise, especially in areas where it’s illegal. As mentioned, exercise itself will trigger production of natural cannabinoids in your body, including anandamide, which is why exercise makes you feel so good. And that alone is usually enough to keep you motivated to continue.

According to the 2013 Stress in America study20 by the American Psychological Association, only 17% of people reported exercising daily. However, having once exercised, 53% said they felt good about themselves, 30% reported less stress and 35% said they were in a good mood after exercising.

Still, for many it can be difficult to stick to a new workout program long enough to reap the benefits, so how can you motivate yourself to keep going? Contrary to popular belief, it is usually not the knowledge of what could happen if you don’t exercise that will motivate you to move.

Knowledge of the benefits of exercise — such as having a fit and toned body, better mood, improved creativity and productivity and slowing the aging process — also don’t appear to improve your motivation to exercise. The reason for this is because each of these are extrinsic factors, meaning factors that exist outside of who you are and what you might immediately experience.

Psychologists have found that many of the excuses for not exercising center around the immediate discomfort you anticipate from the activity. Theories of behavior have demonstrated that your immediate experience will often overshadow any future anticipated reward.21

In other words, you’ll find it difficult to do something uncomfortable if the reward you earn is something you’ll experience later. Some of the common excuses for not donning workout gear and heading to the gym or the running trail are:

Sweating

Being too hot or cold

Being out of breath

Sore muscles

Getting wet in the rain

Getting out of bed when it’s dark

Getting dirty

Working out in front of people

Feeling out of shape when exercising

Don’t know how to exercise and don’t want to ask

Don’t like feeling uncomfortable while exercising

Not enough time in the day to exercise

Too tired to exercise

Exercise is boring

Tried it before and didn’t like it

Don’t have the energy to exercise

Exercise is expensive

Scared of getting hurt

Don’t have anyone to exercise with

Current physical condition makes it difficult to exercise

Too overwhelming to think about starting an exercise program

How to Tap Into Motivation

Since the problem with motivation is that most extrinsic factors are not strong enough to motivate you to exercise daily, then another strategy must be used. A 2016 Business Insider article22 asked Dan Ariely, Ph.D., professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of the book “Payoff,” to weigh in on the issue.

Ariely’s studies on the effect of motivation and performance in the workplace demonstrate that in both recreational and work situations, you are more motivated by the intrinsic value of what you’re creating (in this case how challenging the workout will be) than the extrinsic benefits you may experience later (such as better health, lower weight and a longer life). He told Business Insider:23

"When we think about running, it just seems like it's really going to be miserable and painful and unpleasant and so on. And we don't engage in it. But the fact is that once we're in the task, life changes. All of a sudden, we think less about the misery and we learn to enjoy things."

A 2015 study 24 also demonstrated this concept. During exercise, people placed greater value on their internal feelings rather than the benefits they may experience later. These researchers theorized that intrinsic incentives improved experience during an action, as opposed to external incentives that held the same value both during and after an activity.

In short, it’s all about getting started. Don’t think about doing it, just go. Ariely believes the mistake most people make is to focus on extrinsic incentives, like your health and fitness goals, rather than the immediate experience of having fun during exercise.

So, remember, if you’re feeling short on motivation, simply put exercise on your daily to-do list and just do it, without too much thinking, and stay in the moment. Chances are you’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy it more than you anticipated, and this is what will make it easier to “just go” the next time around — no cannabis needed.