Dr. David Pompei, PharmD, MS
Did you know cannabis can actually improve your workouts? Using cannabis before exercising can increase your mind-body connection, boost your motivation to exercise, and help you enjoy your workouts more.
In this article, we will explore:
In 2004, the lack of exercise was classified as “an actual cause of chronic diseases and death.” Human beings evolved to move, and physical activity is essential for overall health and well-being. Unfortunately, in today's sedentary world, many people fail to get the physical activity they need.
Physical activity (PA) is defined as “any movement produced by skeletal muscles that results in energy expenditure, while physical exercise is a subset of PA that is structured, planned, and repetitive.”
Exercise can include everything from walking to dancing to weightlifting. Different types of exercise stress different systems within the body, but all forms of exercise have health benefits. The key is finding an activity that you enjoy and making it a part of your regular routine.
Exercise and cannabis share some interesting similarities. For example, both exercise and cannabis intoxication produce a “sought-after state of calmness or contentedness.” That is because many of the “feel-good” elements of exercise and cannabis are mediated through your endocannabinoid system (ECS).
For example, as Jointly discussed in How Does Exercise Affect Your Cannabis Experience:
“Traditionally, the “runner’s high” has been attributed to endorphins, endogenous peptides that activate the body’s opioid receptors. However, there is emerging research that the endocannabinoid system may play an important role in the “analgesia, sedation, anxiolysis and a sense of wellbeing” produced by exercise.
Specifically, researchers have found that “people who take opioid-blocking drugs before exercising can still achieve states of bliss during a workout,” and that exercise increases serum concentrations of endocannabinoids.”
So, similar mechanisms are involved in making you feel euphoric after a good workout or after a purposeful dose of cannabis.
Additionally, both cannabis and exercise need to be dosed correctly to get the most benefit. For many people, a low dose of cannabis is best for most goals.
While you can’t fatally overdose from cannabis, exercising excessively can be fatal. However, chronic cannabis consumption carries risks such as tolerance and reduced motivation.
Exercise is particularly helpful for combatting the side effects of chronic cannabis use. For example, chronic cannabis use can blunt the dopamine system in the brain, while exercise has been shown to bolster the dopamine system. Additionally, exercise has also been shown to improve your memory through your endocannabinoid system, while chronic cannabis use is known to worsen short-term memory.
Now let’s explore how cannabis can enhance your exercise experiences.
Why do people use cannabis before exercising? A study published in 2022 analyzed “how and why people use cannabis when participating in physical activity,” based on the survey results of 131 adults.
The researchers found that consumers’ “reasons for exercising with cannabis span the physiological, psychological, neuromotor, and even spiritual domains.” The respondents report using cannabis before hiking (60%), yoga (58%), aerobic machines (50%).
Here are the top 3 reasons the respondents used weed before working out:
1. Enhanced focus (66%). One of the main reasons adults use cannabis during physical activity is to improve their focus. When you're more focused, you're better able to get in the zone and achieve your fitness goals.
2. Increased mind-body connection (65%). Cannabis can help increase your mind-body connection, which is especially useful for activities like yoga or pilates.
3. Increased enjoyment (65%). Many adults report that using cannabis increases their enjoyment of the activity itself. For example, if you're using a cardio machine, cannabis can help make the time go by faster and make your workout more enjoyable.
So whether you're looking to increase your focus, become more aware of your body, or just make your workout more enjoyable, there's a good chance that there is a cannabis product that can help.
In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency exempted CBD from its list of banned substances, but kept other cannabinoids on the list. In light of this change, a 2022 narrative review assessed whether THC or CBD have any performance-enhancing effects, and concluded that CBD and THC are not performance-enhancing substances.
Most studies that explored how cannabis affects exercise have looked at physical work capacity and motor coordination, and found generally negative effects from acute cannabis intoxication.
At present, there is not enough scientifically rigorous data to make any firm conclusions about how cannabis affects exercise performance, but we encourage you to experiment and find out how it affects you.
Angela Bryan, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado, conducted a survey of more than 600 cannabis users and found that “four out of five respondents said they used cannabis right before or after exercising.” These survey results fascinated Dr. Bryan: “the question she’d most like to answer is probably the most difficult one: does cannabis directly influence people’s decisions to exercise?”
Due to federal prohibition on cannabis, there is a lack of rigorous research into how cannabis impacts motivation to exercise. However, research has revealed that endocannabinoids “appear to modulate highly interactive stress and reward networks, consisting of the endocannabinoid system (ECS), dopamine system, and hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenocortical axis.”
Both exercise and cannabis intoxication produce a state of calmness “mediated by interactive anxiolytic effects of increased cannabinoid and oxytocin receptor activation and rewarding effects of elevated dopamine.”
The relationship between the endocannabinoid system and exercise led Gillman et al. in their 2015 review of Cannabis and Exercise Science to state “it is possible that some forms of exogenous cannabinoids may have beneficial effects on exercise motivation.” So it seems cannabis could enhance your motivation to exercise.
According to a 2013 study, regular cannabis users who completed a 35 minute exercise bout had elevated blood levels of THC, likely due to releasing dormant THC from fat stores.
Did you know that exercise is one of the 15 Factors that can impact your cannabis experience? According to Jointly data, exercise at any point in your cannabis experience makes it better, but exercising before you use cannabis has the most impact.
While cannabis can increase mind-body connection and exercise enjoyment, some evidence suggests that chronic cannabis use has adverse effects on certain parameters of athletic performance such as anaerobic power output or grip strength.
For example, chronic cannabis use in females is associated with reduced anaerobic power. This data comes from a cross-sectional study designed to determine whether chronic cannabis use in physically active female athletes is related to altered health or athletic performance.
A total of 24 healthy, physically active, female cannabis users and non-users completed athletic performance and health assessments. On average, the study participants were 23 years old and the cannabis users began using cannabis at 20 years old. There were no significant differences between groups with respect to body size, body composition, cardiovascular function, or muscular strength.
Curiously, the researchers found that chronic cannabis users produced significantly less power in the first 2 stages of the assessment, but also experienced significantly less anaerobic fatigue. Essentially, cannabis users had lower power output early on, but they were able to maintain their power output better than non-users.
One noteworthy finding from this study is that lung function was comparable between the two groups of female athletes, which led the researchers to state that “it does not seem that the chronic use of cannabis products through inhalation in young adults significantly alters pulmonary function or cardiovascular fitness.”
A different study indicates that individuals with cannabis use disorder (CUD) have reduced grip and pinch strength, and “less hand skill,” compared to non-users. The researchers conducted a cross-sectional prospective study with 66 individuals, including 33 people with CUD and 33 age- and sex-matched controls. The subjects’ grip and pinch strengths were evaluated with a dynamometer.
The individuals with CUD showed reduced grip strength in both hands and decreased two-point-pinch strength on their dominant side compared to non-cannabis users. Additionally, the researchers noted that subjects with CUD had a decrease in hand skills or manual dexterity, but that this deficit was related to decreased grip strength in the CUD group.
So, there is some evidence that chronic cannabis consumption may have an adverse effect on sports that require hand skills or early anaerobic power output.
Exercise, when dosed appropriately, restores and bolsters your endocannabinoid system in a variety of ways. If you aren’t familiar with the ECS, here’s a quick refresher from the Jointly deepdive on the endocannabinoid system:
“In humans, the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is made up of the type 1 cannabinoid receptor (CB1) and the type 2 cannabinoid receptor (CB2), the endogenous ligands (AEA and 2-AG) that are also known as endocannabinoids (eCBs), and the enzymes (FAAH and MAGL) that produce and degrade the ligands.
Ligands are signaling molecules that bind to receptors on cells. When a ligand binds to a receptor on a cell, it produces an effect in the cell. Usually receptors only accept one (or a few) specific ligands.
CB1 receptors are found on neurons throughout the brain and the peripheral nervous system. THC is a CB1 receptor agonist, meaning THC binds to CB1 receptors and produces a signal.
The ECS can be thought of as “a lipid-signaling system…that modulates neurotransmitter release.” When eCBs (or exogenous cannabinoids) bind to CB receptors on neurons, the release of that neurotransmitter is suppressed. For example, if eCBs bind to receptors on a GABAergic neuron, the release of GABA will be suppressed.”
Exercise impacts your endocannabinoid system in various positive ways. For example, exercise increases levels of AEA (the bliss molecule) and makes your CB1 receptors more sensitive - increasing the sensitivity of those receptors to cannabinoids.
Different types of exercise, or exercising in different conditions, may produce different effects on the ECS. For example, strenuous hiking at high altitude significantly increases serum AEA from baseline, more so than strenuous hiking at normal altitude.
Remarkably, many of the psychological benefits of exercise are tied to the ECS. For example, animal studies indicate that when animals lack CB1 receptors on GABAergic neurons, exercise does not relieve anxiety.
Exercise and cannabis both interact with your ECS in complex ways that may impact on your mental health.
For example, cannabis can either stimulate or suppress your ECS. Acute cannabis exposure may “kickstart” the ECS by increasing the density of CB1 receptors in your brain and increasing the sensitivity of those receptors to cannabinoids. However, chronic cannabis use produces the opposite effect: CB1 receptors are downregulated. The dividing line between “acute” and “chronic” cannabis use is a gray zone and may differ among individuals.
But why does your ECS impact your mental health? Well, your ECS is critically involved in your stress response and mood - and thus mental health - partly because CB1 receptors are expressed in high density in the amygdala. The amygdala is part of your brain related to fear-related memories and emotional processing.
When you experience stress, your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is activated and stress hormones are released. The enzyme FAAH is also activated, which rapidly breaks down the endocannabinoid AEA in various regions of the brain - including the amygdala. Researchers have shown that CB1 receptors in the amygdala play an important role in whether a stimulus is stored as a fear memory or not.
Basically, after an acute stress AEA-CB1 signaling in the amygdala becomes particularly important to reduce stress-induced anxiety. Enhanced CB1 signaling in the amygdala is associated with lower levels of anxiety.
Chronic cannabis use alters the ECS and causes a downregulation of CB1 receptors in the brain and less eCB signaling in the amygdala - deficits that are similar to those caused by chronic stress. So how can you restore your impaired ECS and CB1 signaling? Exercise.
Mice exposed to chronic stress and then given access to a running wheel recover stress-induced deficits to their ECS. Exercise acts as a healthy stressor that activates the HPA axis and the ECS, elevating levels of eCBs and increasing CB1 signaling.
In short, exercise has the ability to restore your ECS and exert protective effects on your mental health.
In general, it is safe to exercise while high. That said, there are some sensible precautions that should be taken. As we noted at the beginning of this article, most adults who use cannabis to exercise enjoy hiking, yoga, or using cardio machines, which typically involves mild to moderate cardiovascular exertion. For most people, these types of activities are perfectly safe to do after using cannabis, but it is always a good idea to consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen.
However, it is important to note that cannabis can affect cardiac function in healthy adults. A case study published in 2022 describes the case of a healthy young male who developed acute coronary syndrome following “excessive cannabis use and exercise,” and was later diagnosed with spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD).
The case study details that the patient was a 20-year old male with no medical history who presented with severe substernal chest pain after a basketball game. The patient was managed conservatively and eventually discharged. The case study concludes that further studies are needed to understand the mechanisms behind cannabis-induced SCAD, but that “cannabis toxicity, although generally safe, can have adverse cardiovascular effects, especially in the setting of physical stressors, such as aerobic exercise.”
Additionally, a recent literature review published in August 2022 found that acute cannabis use can lead to a variety of cardiovascular changes like increased heart rate, “increase in supine systolic blood pressure, orthostatic hypotension and decrease in maximum exercise performance.” Additionally, the literature review found that cannabis “can trigger acute myocardial infarction in otherwise healthy young individuals, affect atherogenesis, arrhythmia, develop Takotsubo cardiomyopathy and cannabis arteritis.”
So, what does this mean if you want to use cannabis to enhance your exercise experiences? In general, you should always start with a small dose and see how that affects your exercise experience before experimenting with larger doses.
For HIIT or hill sprints, you might want to skip the THC or use only a microdose.
That said, a recent animal study established a model of exhaustive exercise training in mice and found that CBD has a significant protective effect on myocardial injury. So, if you want to use a cannabis product before a vigorous workout, you might be better off sticking to CBD products. And enjoy THC products to enhance your exercise recovery.
Jointly is a cannabis discovery app that makes it easy to find and match with the best cannabis and CBD products for your goals. Your matches are calculated from the real product ratings and experiences of hundreds of thousands of people using the Jointly app.
With Jointly, match with top-rated products, and build lists of your favorites to save, share, and bring to your local dispensary to help guide your shopping experience.
Jointly also helps you track your cannabis experiences through reflections that help you understand what’s working, and what’s not. In fact, the quality of your diet, how much you slept, who you’re with, and the time of day are just some of the factors that can impact your experiences.