Renee Magnan – Is Physical Activity a Treatment for Alcohol Abuse?

As a post-doc at the University of New Mexico, Renee Magnan studied how people respond emotionally to physical activity, and how exercise might be used to help people cope with stress. Along the way, her research team uncovered a seemingly unlikely connection: People who drink more also tend to exercise more.

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Their first reaction was, “This doesn’t make any sense,” recalled Magnan, now an assistant professor of psychology at WSU Vancouver. “We thought we really needed to have better research on this.”

The link between alcohol and exercise is an important piece of Magnan’s overall research theme—the relationship between health behavior and emotion. Her hypothesis is that both alcohol and physical activity could make people feel good, increasing the likelihood that they will engage in those behaviors again. If that is the connection, might physical activity be effective in substance abuse treatment?

“If a person experiencing alcohol abuse problems does it because it makes them feel good, then physical activity could be a good substitute behavior,” she said.

Currently she is using experiential sampling (a daily diary method) to better understand the connection. Participants will identify when they drink or exercise and what might trigger the behavior—such as environment, feelings or people. Not every alcohol user is an alcohol abuser, and the research may help identify which people would benefit most from treatment that includes exercise.

“This study is exploratory—a necessary first step to see how people behave in their daily lives and what kind of connections we can make between these behaviors,” Magnan said. “The ultimate goal will be collaborating with clinical and behavioral psychologists who actually do the treatment—but that’s a long-term thing.”

Magnan and her students are also researching graphic warning labels for cigarette packages, trying to figure out how people think about such messages and how to make them more effective.

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