Over the decades, a stereotypical image of cannabis users has been carefully developed and curated by critics and sceptics of the drug. It is a picture that most of us have become familiar with through popular media: the lazy stoner. Cannabis users are usually depicted as unmotivated – even stupid – somewhat dirty, and to be blunt – definitely not the athletic type. But how accurate is this depiction? We’re taking a look at the existing evidence in order to determine the effects of cannabis before, during, and after exercise.
Challenging the general consensus
It is widely accepted that cannabis decreases motivation and has a negative effect on exercise habits. If this is true, then frequent cannabis use may well be considered problematic, given the significant health benefits of regular exercise. In recent years, the cannabis wellness movement – in particular, the rising popularity of CBD products – has begun to challenge this idea. However, in truth, the relationship between cannabis use and physical activity remains under-researched and, as a result, not clearly understood.
Cannabis is known to hold the potential to increase appetite and promote relaxation. It is these very characteristics that make medical cannabis useful for medicinal applications such as the management of appetite loss and the improvement of quality of life for patients with a number of health conditions. On the flip side of these effects, however, one might assume that increased appetite and sedation may also increase the risk of other health conditions, such as obesity. Yet, current evidence indicates that cannabis users actually have a lower prevalence of obesity when compared to non-users. So, what’s going on here?
The effects of cannabis pre-exercise
Let’s go back to the motivation question again. Does cannabis make us feel less motivated? Yes, cannabis has a sedating effect that many users report makes it easier to relax, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that their motivation is taking a hit. In fact, recently, evidence has emerged to debunk this assumption.
In 2019, a survey developed by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder was completed by over 600 cannabis users. The results showed that the majority (81.7%) of respondents endorsed using cannabis concurrently with exercise. In fact, over two-thirds (68.9%) of respondents reported that they use cannabis within one hour of starting exercise. Interestingly, many cannabis users reported that using cannabis pre-exercise makes their workout more enjoyable. Furthermore, cannabis users also spent more minutes per week exercising than non-users.
This finding is supported by further research, including a 2022 study, led by scientists from UCL, the University of Cambridge, and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. They concluded that “people who use cannabis are no more likely to lack motivation or be lazier than people who don’t.” Or as Martine Skumlien, one of the study’s authors, put it:
“We’re so used to seeing ‘lazy stoners’ on our screens that we don’t stop to ask whether they’re an accurate representation of cannabis users. Our work implies that this is in itself a lazy stereotype…”
Furthermore, the results of a 2021 US survey likewise concluded that frequent cannabis users were more involved in physical activities than non-users. So, if cannabis use doesn’t impact individuals’ motivation to exercise and could actually make exercise more fun – how exactly does this work?
The effects of cannabis during exercise
Let’s be clear, we are not suggesting that smoking a joint is going to make a 5k on the treadmill any easier; that’s not quite what we mean by “during exercise”. We want to understand how cannabis use can affect physical performance and our experience during exercise.
Past investigations into the effects of whole cannabis and THC have reported that cannabis use has either a null or negative effect on exercise performance in strength and aerobic-type activities. However, it should be noted that such investigations are scarce. Nonetheless, there is also no evidence that cannabis or any of its derivatives have performance-enhancing effects. It is for this reason that sporting bodies are beginning to consider removing cannabis from their anti-doping policy.
But what about the consumers who reported that exercise is more fun under the influence of cannabis? Well, they weren’t the only ones. In another survey, conducted in 2022, respondents reported using cannabis while hiking, doing yoga, and using aerobic machines. Their reasons? Two-thirds (66%) stated that cannabis helped them “to focus/concentrate”, 65% said it helped them to “enjoy the exercise experience”, and 65% also said that it helped with “enhancing mind-body-spirit connection”.
A runner’s high?
The chances are you are familiar with the term: “runner’s high”. It is used to refer to the sense of euphoria experienced by many individuals during and after exercise. What you may not know, though, is that this feeling of euphoria is likely linked to the release of endocannabinoids – our body’s very own cannabis-like compounds.
The word “high” makes more sense now, doesn’t it? And exercise isn’t the only activity that can increase the levels of endocannabinoids in our bodies. As Cara Delevingne recently discovered, 80% of us also experience a spike in endocannabinoids after sex.
This release of endocannabinoids may not simply lend us a temporary feeling of euphoria; new evidence indicates that heightened levels of endocannabinoids in people who exercise regularly may also be beneficial for gut and heart health and even for reducing pain and inflammation.
The effects of cannabis post-exercise
The previously mentioned survey also suggests that a significant proportion of cannabis users (in this case, 77.6%) feel that cannabis is able to enhance recovery from exercise. This isn’t an isolated finding. As cannabis and its derivatives become increasingly accessible, a huge variety of products are popping up, including workout supplements and products marketed specifically for exercise recovery. Many of these products focus on the potential anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties of some cannabis compounds – particularly CBD.
A growing body of evidence supports the idea that cannabis could be useful for exercise recovery. Anecdotal accounts suggest that topical CBD products can help to reduce muscle pain and soreness following workouts and some studies back this theory.
The potential benefits of such products are down to the diverse expression of the endocannabinoid system in our bodies. Cannabinoid receptors are present throughout our immune and central nervous systems, including in our skin and muscles. This receptor system has been found to play a significant role in various physiological functions, including pain signalling.
So, introducing cannabis to your exercise routine may not only help to make your workout more enjoyable, it could even help to reduce recovery times. Sounds pretty good, right?