According to the first-ever study on how legal, commercial cannabis impacts exercise, carried out by the University of Colorado Boulder, weed makes working out fun, but you’re not going to get some super-boost unless you’re some sort of cannabis superhero.
The study, which was published December 27 in the Sports Medicine journal, was a long time coming, as Colorado has now had legal cannabis for a decade, and many other states have also embraced cannabis as the norm, so it stands to reason that cannabis is also becoming normalized in the world of fitness, although it has remained a contentious topic in sports. Many well-known athletes—notably U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson—have gotten in trouble for cannabis consumption.
The research looked at 42 different runners to get information about how they used cannabis and how their use impacted their activity.
“The bottom-line finding is that cannabis before exercise seems to increase positive mood and enjoyment during exercise, whether you use THC or CBD. But THC products specifically may make exercise feel more effortful,” explains first author Laurel Gibson, a research fellow with CU’s Center for Health and Addiction: Neuroscience, Genes and Environment (CU Change).
This kind of tells us what we already know: “couch-lock” is not necessarily going to happen to you just because you consume cannabis.
“We have an epidemic of sedentary lifestyle in this country, and we need new tools to try to get people to move their bodies in ways that are enjoyable,” said senior author Angela Bryan, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and co-director of CU Change. “If cannabis is one of those tools, we need to explore it, keeping in mind both the harms and the benefits.”
An earlier study of cannabis users turned up a massive amount of cannabis users, as Bryan’s researchers revealed 80% of those surveyed use cannabis before or after they exercise. They asked 42 Boulder-based cannabis users and runners about when they consumed and how. They had participants consume cannabis that was high in either CBD or THC. They were then asked both under the influence of cannabis and without using it how they were enjoying their exercise during a light 30-minute run on a treadmill.
It almost doesn’t need explaining—cannabis generally enhances enjoyment of activities we like, and the folks in this study liked running. But interestingly, enjoyment was even greater in the CBD group than the THC group, suggesting some of the enjoyment came from lower pain levels during exercise.
THC users also claimed that the run felt more difficult, though also more enjoyable, and harder in intensity than when they were sober. That also tracks with the way cannabis can enhance average experiences. Bryan also posited it could be because cannabis increases heart rate.
Another study conducted by Bryan and Gibson revealed that runners ran 31 seconds slower high than sober, though they still reported more enjoyment.
“It is pretty clear from our research that cannabis is not a performance enhancing drug,” said Bryan.
Additionally, the latest research shows that only certain people will experience the “runner’s high” phenomenon. Naturally produced brain chemicals called endogenous cannabinoids often kick in after exercise for some folks to make them more euphoric and alert. In other words, cannabis and exercise will work in tandem for a pleasant experience for some, while others might just feel overly tired.
“The reality is, some people will never experience the runner’s high,” Gibson says.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason to safely consume cannabis to enhance a workout. The science behind cannabinoid receptors and the way folks consuming it during the study felt points to the fact that CBD and THC can help produce a euphoric feeling during a short workout or enhance enjoyability or take away soreness during a longer workout.
Of course, one should always be careful when pairing substance use and exercise, even if it’s just cannabis use. Weed can cause dizziness and loss of balance for some, which could make working out under the influence dangerous in the wrong conditions. And based on this data, those looking to train very seriously or participate in competitions may want to avoid cannabis entirely or only use it for recovery.
For those who simply want to enhance the occasional workout, however, or for people who want an added boost to get in the zone and enjoy moving their bodies, this could be just the ticket.
Bryan specifically underscores how powerful this discovery could be for folks who struggle with motivation for exercise or find it painful. For those people, finding something that makes exercise pleasant and inviting would be a game-changer.
“Is there a world where taking a low-dose gummy before they go for that walk might help? It’s too early to make broad recommendations but it’s worth exploring,” she concludes.
So next time you struggle with motivation to up and move, remember, healthy cannabis consumption might help you go the extra mile—but you probably won’t do it at a record-breaking speed.