New research into the benefits of cannabis use among older people has found that smoking cannabis significantly increases the motivation to engage in physical exercise, and that, ironically, it is non-users who are much more likely to feel the strain. Terrible puns aside, the study’s findings are actually pretty important given the connection between regular exercise and healthy ageing.
Published in the latest edition of the American Journal of Health Behavior[i], the study analysed the performance of a group of people taking part in a 16-week exercise programme for over-60s, some of whom were cannabis users. Before joining the scheme, users and non-users reported an equal tendency to exercise, with both groups engaging in physical activity an average of 1.3 times a week.
As the programme progressed, however, the cannabis smokers became significantly more energised than their non-using counterparts. At the eight-week stage, those who used marijuana were already exercising an average of 4.1 times a week, while cannabis-free participants were only managing 3.4 workouts a week. By the end of the scheme, this gap was even more pronounced, with cannabis users cramming in four more exercise sessions a week than non-users.
The fact that cannabis helped to enhance the benefits of this exercise programme fits in with previous research regarding the plant’s impact on physical activity. A study that was published last year in Frontiers in Public Health revealed that people who combine marijuana with exercise tend to report greater enjoyment and speedier recovery from their workouts, resulting in more motivation to keep fit. Compared to non-users, the cannabis users in this study spent an extra 56 minutes a week engaging in aerobic exercises like running, and an extra 37 minutes a week on anaerobic exercises such as weight training[ii].
Given that numerous studies have highlighted a link between physical activity levels and age-related cognitive decline[iii], marijuana’s ability to increase the desire to exercise could prove to be of major benefit to older people. This, of course, is in addition to the plant’s potential to directly combat neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.
Much of the evidence for this comes from lab experiments on mice, some of which have yielded staggering results. In one study, aged mice who were treated with a miniscule dose of THC showed remarkable improvements in their cognitive capacities when taking part in a range of tests. After a single treatment with the compound, these elderly rodents achieved scores that were similar to those of young mice, and were able to maintain this level of performance for seven weeks[iv].
A separate team of researchers saw similar results after treating elderly mice with THC, and decided to investigate the matter further by examining the animals’ brains. To their surprise, they found that compared to non-treated mice, those that had received THC had more neuronal connections in their hippocampi, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Even more staggering was that the gene-expression pattern in these rodents’ hippocampi had reverted back to that of a young mouse[v].
Fortunately for older humans, scientists aren’t planning on removing their brains to investigate how cannabis enhances the motivation to exercise, although that doesn’t detract from the significance of this latest study or the range of benefits associated with marijuana use later in life.
[i] YorkWilliams SL, Gibson LP, Gust CJ, Giordano G, Hutchison KE, Bryan AD. Exercise Intervention Outcomes with Cannabis Users and Nonusers Aged 60 and Older. American Journal of Health Behavior. 2020 Jul 1;44(4):420-31. – https://www.ingentaconnect.com/contentone/png/ajhb/2020/00000044/00000004/art00005#
[ii] YorkWilliams SL, Gust CJ, Mueller R, Bidwell L, Hutchison KE, Gillman AS, Bryan AD. The new runner’s high? Examining relationships between cannabis use and exercise behavior in states with legalized cannabis. Frontiers in public health. 2019 Apr 30;7:99. – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2019.00099/full?utm_source=F-NTF&utm_medium=EMLX&utm_campaign=PRD_FEOPS_20170000_ARTICLE
[iv] Sarne Y, Toledano R, Rachmany L, Sasson E, Doron R. Reversal of age-related cognitive impairments in mice by an extremely low dose of tetrahydrocannabinol. Neurobiology of Aging. 2018 Jan 1;61:177-86. – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0197458017303214
[v] Bilkei-Gorzo A, Albayram O, Draffehn A, Michel K, Piyanova A, Oppenheimer H, Dvir-Ginzberg M, Rácz I, Ulas T, Imbeault S, Bab I. A chronic low dose of Δ 9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) restores cognitive function in old mice. Nature Medicine. 2017 Jun;23(6):782. – https://www.nature.com/articles/nm.4311