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Sedentary College Student Drinkers Can Start Exercising and Reduce Drinking After Intervention

Students often avoid seeking help due to perceived stigma, so researchers wanted to examine exercise as a potentially nonstigmatizing, substance-free intervention for heavy drinking students. Exercise may alter student’s drinking habits by decreasing the urge to drink, improving mental health, and improving self-regulation. This randomized clinical trial enrolled 70 college students that were sedentary (having exercised less than 2 days per week in the last 2 months), reported 4 or more heavy drinking episodes during the past 2 months, and met criteria related to hazardous drinking. Participants completed baseline assessments and were randomized to one of two exercise intervention conditions for 8 weeks. The first intervention consisted of motivational interviewing plus exercise contracting (MI + EC), which reinforced participants for attending the exercise contracting sessions (regardless of exercise activity completion). This intervention involved a therapist meeting with the participant to develop an exercise contract, reviewing the previous week’s contract and the participant’s exercising, resolving any barriers, and creating a new contract for the next week. Participants in the MI + EC group received $5 for each of the 8 sessions they attended. The second intervention was motivational interviewing plus contingency management of exercise contracts (MI + CM) which reinforced participants only for completion of verified exercise activities.  Participants in this intervention received drawings from a prize bowl for every exercise they completed. The prize bowl contained 80 slips of paper, half of which stated “Good job!” and the other half were associated with prizes ranging in value from $1 to $100. Both groups had similar rates of participation and reported similar satisfaction. Students in both interventions significantly increased their exercise frequency, with participants in the MI + CM group having a greater increase in exercise frequency than those who received MI + EC. There was a statistically significant reduction in the number of binge drinking episodes among the students that participated and there were no differences between the two interventions. However, the reduction does not appear to be clinically significant with reductions of less than one episode per week and endorsement of one or two fewer consequences over time.

Take away: The findings of this study indicated changes in exercise were not predictive of changes in drinking. This could be explained by factors such as the benefits of exercising having differential impact on drinking, or because the interventions did not directly link exercise with drinking outcomes. Addressing both heavy drinking and exercise simultaneously under one intervention may be an appropriate method in addressing these two behaviors. The findings and limitations of this study are useful in examining exercise as an intervention for addictive behaviors.

Weinstock, J., Petry, N.M., Pescatello, L.S., & Henderson, C.E. (2016) Sedentary College Student Drinkers Can Start Exercising and Reduce Drinking After Intervention. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.

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