When it comes to cannabis use and physical activity, the popular perception is split: On one hand, stereotypes perpetuate the idea of sedentary stoners who sit around snacking. On the other, groups like the World Anti-Doping Agency consider cannabis a performance-enhancing drug, and more and more professional athletes cite cannabis as a key component of their workout routines.
That tension inspired researchers at the University of Colorado to explore the connection between cannabis consumption and exercise, a topic that’s received relatively little attention from academics. Their findings suggest cannabis can be a potent exercise aid, increasing enjoyment of physical activity and easing after-workout recovery. It may even boost performance and motivation.
More exercise, more enjoyment
The study, “The New Runner’s High? Examining Relationships Between Cannabis Use and Exercise Behavior in States With Legalized Cannabis,” looked at survey responses from 605 adults living in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington—all states where adult-use cannabis is legal. Respondents who endorsed what the study calls “co-use” of cannabis and exercise—that is, consumption immediately before and/or after a workout—tended to be younger and male, but the apparent benefits of co-use applied more broadly.
“Even after controlling for these differences, co-users reported engaging in more minutes of aerobic and anaerobic exercise per week,” the study found. “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.”
If that’s surprising, consider some of the past findings the authors point to. While research is still sparse, surveys suggest cannabis consumers have a lower prevalence of obesity, and data from the National Center for Health Statistics show positive correlations between cannabis use and good metabolic health indicators, such as lower levels of fasting insulin, smaller waist circumference, and a reduced rate of type II diabetes.
The study’s results were more mixed in terms of how respondents said cannabis affects their exercise performance and motivation. A slim majority agreed that cannabis improves their motivation to exercise, while just over a third of respondents said cannabis enhances their performance. Large portions of respondents were neutral about those effects, and relatively few said that cannabis was counterproductive to exercise.
What cannabis contributes
The study’s authors believe it to be “the first study to survey attitudes and behavior regarding the use of cannabis before and after exercise, and to examine differences between cannabis users who engage in co-use, compared to those who do not,” so it’s not surprising they’re a bit hesitant to draw sweeping conclusions. But based on the study’s findings, there are key contributions cannabis might be making to your workout.
Possible benefits identified by the researchers include enhancing enjoyment of exercise, boosting motivation, and the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties of cannabinoids. “While anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis reduces motivation for exercise,” they note, “several neurobiological mechanisms connected to the endocannabinoid system argue against this; rather, there is evidence to suggest that cannabis may have beneficial effects on exercise motivation.”
At the same time, the study acknowledges there’s a lot we have yet to learn about how cannabis affects the body’s exercise-related mechanisms. While cannabinoids may reduce pain and inflammation, the authors write, “other research suggests the use of anti-inflammatory agents, such as cannabinoids, might actually interfere with proper recovery from exercise.” And there are ongoing questions around how cannabis contributes to impaired driving, mental health issues, and sleep disturbances.
There are also methodological limitations to the study’s findings. Respondents were anonymous, voluntarily filled out surveys, and were generally gathered from populations already interested in cannabis. Authors repeatedly note that further research is needed to “refine and expand upon this foundational study.”
And while they don’t go so far as to promote cannabis as a complement to exercise, the authors conclude that most consumers who pair it with their workouts “believe it increases enjoyment of, recovery from, and to some extent the motivation to engage in exercise.”
“As these factors positively correlate with exercise behavior,” they continue, “using cannabis with exercise may play a beneficial role in the health of cannabis users.”