Can Exercise Reduce Relapse Risk For People with Alcohol Dependence?

The relationship between exercise and improved mood has been well documented, yet few studies have applied exercise as an intervention for people with alcohol use disorders.  

Improved mood, particularly decreased depressive and anxiety symptoms, have the potential to reduce relapse risk for people in recovery from alcohol problems.

Brown and colleagues recently conducted a randomized trial of 49 participants recruited from alcohol and drug day treatment services to participate in a group aerobic exercise program for 12 weeks (1 session/wk) or receive brief advice to exercise from a clinician. The treatment condition (group aerobic exercise) also received weekly 15-20 minute group sessions based on cognitive and behavioral techniques. At the time of entry into the study, all participants were adults, met DSM-IV criteria for alcohol dependence, were currently sedentary (exercising less than 60 min/wk for past 6 months), in early alcohol recovery and were medically cleared to engage in moderate-intensity exercise.

At the end of the 12-week intervention period, participants randomly assigned to the group aerobic exercise group were less likely to report any drinking days or heavy drinking days relative to the group that received brief advice about exercise. At the twelve-week post-treatment follow-up, however, there was no longer a significant difference between groups. Subsequent analyses did suggest that adherence and exercise level strengthened the observed effect of the intervention condition on alcohol use outcomes.

Increased frequency of exercise among participants assigned to the group aerobic exercise condition was associated with fewer drinking days during treatment and fewer heavy drinking days during treatment and during the follow-up period compared to participants who received brief advice about exercising who exercised at an equivalent level.  Exercise level, when considered alone, was only associated with drinking at the 12-week post-treatment follow-up.


Providing group exercise opportunities as an intervention for adults with alcohol use disorder reduced drinking days and heavy drinking days.

In order to sustain the relative benefits beyond the intervention period, it is important that participants continue to exercise regularly.  The benefits of exercise on alcohol use outcomes in this sample did not appear to be associated with changes in depression, anxiety or self-efficacy as was initially hypothesized.



Brown RA, Abrantes AM, Minami H, Read JP, Marcus BH, Jakicic JM, Strong DR, Dubreuil ME, Gordon AA, Ramset SE, Kahler CW, Stuart GL (In Press). A preliminary, randomized trial of aerobic exercise for alcohol dependence.  Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.