Science

Does Cannabis Make Exercise More Enjoyable? This CU Study Hopes to Find Out

The SPACE research team says the study’s data collection is projected to end by spring of next year.
The SPACE research team says the study’s data collection is projected to end by spring of next year. Courtesy of the University of Colorado Boulder
Laziness and lack of motivation have largely been the stereotypical side effects of marijuana, but a growing number of dedicated athletes and exercise fanatics beg to differ.

Laurel Gibson, a University of Colorado Boulder graduate student pursuing her Ph.D. in social psychology, aims to investigate the changing body of thought through the university's newly approved Study on Physical Activity and Cannabis Effects (SPACE), an observational study that follows runners after they smoke marijuana.

Gibson, the principal analyst of the study, and her team have been recruiting volunteers in the Boulder area since August to participate in the research. She now hopes to put 52 adult volunteers through three different sessions of marijuana use and exercise. The first involves a short written and physical test, where each volunteer is randomly assigned a THC- or CBD-dominant flower. As they return for their second session, they are asked to complete a sober thirty-minute run on a campus treadmill. For their third session, volunteers are required to use their product in their homes, after which a mobile pharmacology lab picks them up, and they are taken back to a campus treadmill for another observed thirty-minute run.

“We’re just looking at how acute cannabis use influences factors associated with regular exercise,” Gibson says. “Some common barriers that people cite are pain levels or enjoyment, motivation, etc.”

The majority of experimental lab research on marijuana was conducted in the ’70s and ’80s using government-grown marijuana with very low THC content, Gibson explains, and focused on details irrelevant to SPACE, such as how long it takes for legs to fatigue.

“What those small studies showed was that there seemed to be either no effect or a slight negative effect of cannabis use on exercise performance,” says Angela Bryan, a psychology and neuroscience professor since 1999 and Gibson’s graduate supervisor. “They were studies of exercise performance and not exercise participation, which is really what we’re more interested in.”

Students and faculty involved with SPACE are concerned with how one’s overall experience is affected while exercising under the influence of today’s retail marijuana products, including edibles and complex strains.

“We’re trying to figure out how this influences people’s engagement in exercises and helps them get up and moving,” Gibson says. “From a public-health perspective, that’s what matters more to us.”

The idea that cannabinoids positively impact one's motivation to be active, as well as other factors such as enjoyment and recovery, could be a game-changer for serious athletes and weekend warriors, but some of them are already sold.

Heather Mashhoodi, a 32-year-old ultrarunner who regularly runs distances longer than marathons, was already experimenting with the effects of THC when she came across the study.

“I’ll pop it half way through my long run, and it takes the pain away and kind of enhances those effects that we think are due to the endocannabinoid system,” Mashhoodi says.

Her passion for endurance athletics bloomed after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, both of which are over 2,500 miles long. When it comes to the act itself, rather than focusing on running to look good or prove a point, she runs to feel connected to where she is. With cannabis, that's easier to achieve, she says.

“It’s probably different for everyone, right? For me, it just gets me more into nature and out of myself. There’s some research done that suggests that externalization is a better long-term motivator, so better for endurance," Mashhoodi says. "It just gets me into being out in nature and experiencing that feeling of connectedness to this big thing, and experiencing less of an ego.”

As volunteers like Mashhoodi continue participating in the study and reporting their findings, CU Boulder continues to get closer to an answer.

“I think regardless of what the findings are, whether or not cannabis has a detrimental effect or a positive effect, that information is still going to be useful for policy makers to consider, for health-care providers to consider, and also for cannabis users to consider before they engage in that behavior,” Gibson says.

The SPACE research team says the study’s data collection is projected to wrap up by spring of 2022.
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