Videogames & Exercise as a Treatment for Substance Use Disorders?

Studies show that exercise improves physical and mental health. Clinical wisdom suggests exercise could offer recovery benefit for individuals with substance use disorders (SUD) in several ways, including an opportunity to engage in a pleasurable and rewarding pro-social competing activity, to improve mood and enhance self-esteem, and, perhaps, to connect with and have a shared experience with others.

However, researchers know very little about the impact of exercise on substance use disorder recovery.

In this 8-week pilot study (i.e., to determine whether a larger trial would be worthwhile), Dr. Cutter and colleagues tested whether patients in a methadone maintenance program would engage and report satisfaction with a videogame-based exercise intervention (exercise group), compared to more conventional videogame playing (sedentary group), both using the Wii Indeed, they found high levels of satisfaction: patients in both groups felt the videogame interventions were enjoyable and useful (greater than 6 on a scale from 1 to 7), with no difference between groups.

Although satisfaction ratings were high, the feasibility outcomes were more modest, with just over 60% of total sessions completed in both groups. Of note, patients in the exercise group reported more weekly exercise outside of the study than those in the sedentary group.

Overall, participants reported a reduction in illicit drug use and perceived stress and increased optimism from baseline to follow-up, however, outcomes didn’t differ by group. Psychiatric symptoms and life satisfaction did not change or differ by group during the 8-week pilot.


Long considered an outlet purely for teenagers, 32% of video game players are 18 to 35 and 39% are 36 and older.

Importantly, Dr. Cutter and colleagues showed that they could get methadone maintenance patients to participate in a video game based exercise intervention, which may increase exercise participation more broadly.

Although all participants reported reductions in drug use with no apparent differences between groups, the sample size was only 27 – which is appropriate for a pilot trial but likely too small to detect group differences. The most relevant conclusion here is that patients appear to like the addition of videogame participation to their conventional SUD treatment, and a larger trial can help clarify whether the exercise-based videogame aids SUD recovery.



Cutter, C. J., Schottenfeld, R. S., Moore, B. A., Ball, S. A., Beitel, M., Savant, J. D., … & Barry, D. T. (2014). A pilot trial of a videogame-based exercise program for methadone maintained patients. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 47(4), 299-305.