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This New Study Will Test How Cannabis Affects Exercise Workouts

By Leo Bear-McGuinness

Published: Dec 01, 2021   
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Image credit: Patrick Campbell/CU Boulder

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Cannabis consumers aren’t normally thought of as outgoing exercisers; even in 2021, the lazy stoner stereotype looms large.

But recent surveys have challenged this cliched image. One poll conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 2019 found that the vast majority of cannabis consumers surveyed (81.7 percent) used the drug before or during exercise.

Now, a team from the same department at CU Boulder have launched a follow-up study, one that will directly assess how runners perform when high.

A runner's high

The SPACE study (study on physical activity and cannabis effects) aims to enlist more than 50 paid adult volunteers. Participants must live in the greater Boulder area, have experience using cannabis concurrently with exercise, and be aged between 21-40 (men) or 21-50 (women).

Once these volunteers are found, the CU Boulder researchers will measure their heart rates, have them answer questionnaires, and take some baseline fitness measurements.

As US federal law prohibits the researchers from distributing cannabis products, participants will be asked to visit a local dispensary and buy their own CBD-dominant or THC-dominant cannabis product.

The subjects will then consume these products at home, before a researcher picks them up in a mobile laboratory – christened “the Cannavan” by the CU Boulder team – for tests.

The participants will be asked to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes and answer questions every 10 minutes to assess their perception, how hard the workout feels, what they’re thinking about, and how much pain they’re in. On another visit, they will be asked to do the same workout and questionnaire, only sober.

By comparing the results of the volunteers’ sober sessions with their stoned sessions, the CU Boulder team hopes to determine whether cannabis is an exercise motivator or a deterrence.

“Cannabis is often associated with a decrease in motivation— that stereotype of couch-lock and laziness,” Laurel Gibson, a PhD student at CU Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and principal investigator of the study, said in a statement.

“But at the same time, we are seeing an increasing number of anecdotal reports of people using it in combination with everything from golfing and yoga to snowboarding and running.”

Exercise and cannabis

Prior to the CU Boulder study, there have been no human studies on the effects of legal market cannabis on the experience of exercise, according to Gibson.

However, the existing body of research could provide hints to why many runners and gym-goers find the drug so beneficial. For instance, it’s known that the body produces its own cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) that can bind to receptors and increase feelings of alertness. If these chemicals are partly responsible for the “high” runners naturally experience, could cannabis induce an artificial runners’ high?

“It is possible that exogenous cannabinoids like THC or CBD might activate the endocannabinoid system in a way that mimics the runner’s high,” said Gibson.

Indeed, one 2015 study from the University of Heidelberg found that, when their endocannabinoid receptors were activated, exercising mice were less sensitive to pain, less anxious, and more tranquil.

Cannabis’ anti-inflammatory effects may also explain why some older exercisers vouch for its benefits in surveys.

“As we get older, exercise starts to hurt, and that is one reason older adults don’t exercise as much,” Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder and advisor on the SPACE study, said in a statement. “If cannabis could ease pain and inflammation, helping older adults to be more active, that could be a real benefit.”


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