Teen Opioid Addiction Prevented by Playing Sport, Study Finds

Nov 4, 2016 | Blog, Youth Addiction Treatment

New research has strengthened the argument that involvement in sport and exercise helps shield teens from addiction. We take a closer look at this research, and why physical activity is a strong component of effective addiction treatment for young men.

How Sport Prevents Opioid Addiction Among Teens


  • Participation in sport could reduce the likelihood of opioid addiction in young people.
  • Counter to previous findings, new research says team sport helps protect teens from addiction.

New research confirms what many parents already suspected – that participating in sport and exercise protects teenagers from the perils of drug abuse and addiction. Specifically, it found that teens involved in physical activities were less likely to use opioids without a prescription.

The Connection Between Athletics and Addiction Prevention

The University of Michigan study on students and opioid abuse sought to establish the extent to which each student exercised or was involved in sporting activities. It then cross-referenced this data with rates and instances of nonmedical prescription opioid use (ie prescription painkillers taken without a prescription) and heroin use. Here is a percentage breakdown of how involved the students were with sport and exercise:

  • Involved on a daily basis: 53.3%
  • Involved on a weekly basis: 38.8%
  • Not involved: 7.9%

The study found that 11.2 per cent of the non-athlete group of students reported using opioid painkillers without a prescription. Meanwhile, only 6.5 per cent of those who engaged in daily exercise and sport used opioids. In other words, those who did not participate in sport were almost twice as likely to use opioids without a prescription. Even those who reported exercising weekly rather than daily were less likely to misuse these medications.

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New Insight into Teen Athletes’ Risk of Developing a Painkiller Addiction

It was previously thought that participation in sport increased a young person’s risk of misusing or abusing medication. In particular, previous research also conducted by Philip Veliz and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and found that male athletes were more likely to use and misuse prescription opioids than their non-athlete counterparts.

The apparent reason for this correlation was relatively straightforward. Athletes were more likely to sustain injuries than non-athletes. And the pain associated with those injuries was likely to be managed with prescription medicines, including opioids. For that reason, young athletes had more exposure to painkillers and greater opportunity to become addicted to them.

However, this new data is much more comprehensive, as its sample size is more than 125 times larger than that of its predecessor. It demonstrates that the benefits of being involved in a sport outweigh the potential risks of being exposed to opioid painkillers. It also gives parents the assurance that athletic programmes at school are protecting their teens from future addiction.

Protecting Young People from the Opioid Addiction Epidemic

Opioid addiction is a serious problem worldwide.  While they are highly effective at managing pain, opioids are also extremely addictive. Anyone taking the medication can easily develop a tolerance, meaning a higher dosage is necessary to manage the pain. The onset of addiction can be swift and devastating.

This has particularly dangerous repercussions for teenagers. There is plenty of evidence linking opioid addiction to heroin use. Wary of encouraging addiction, doctors become less inclined to continue writing prescriptions for the same patient. Securing the painkillers without a prescription is expensive. Heroin is cheaper and easier to find, making it all the easier for those addicted to opioids to make the switch to this even more dangerous and addictive drug.

With that in mind, the findings of this latest research can give parents some peace of mind over allowing their teenagers to participate in sport. While sport inevitably leads to some injuries that may call for prescription painkillers, it also appears to shield young athletes from the risk of abuse and addiction.

In the words of the researchers, “The results of this study suggest that participation in sport and exercise may serve as a protective factor with respect to [nonmedical prescription opioid use] and heroin use.”

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The Edge Uses Athletic Training to Treat Addiction

At The Edge, we are pioneers in the use of athletic training in addiction treatment. Our addiction counsellors have long understood that physical activity and adventure have a strong role to play in helping young people recover from an addiction, and we leverage this in our treatment regimen.

We incorporate Muay Thai Boxing and Triathlon training into our addiction treatment programme. These have been specifically designed to help young men who are grappling with addictive behaviours. Trainees begin with a general assessment, and then they proceed through a series of rankings as they progress through their treatment. This allows them to demonstrate their newly acquired skills and techniques – teaching them to find value in activities that run counter to an addictive lifestyle.

If a young man that you care about is struggling with addiction, our innovative addiction treatment programme can help. Contact The Edge today to learn more.