Exercise Science Professor Gwendolyn Thomas Secures NIH Grant to Study Exercise and Cannabis Use

Gwendolyn Thomas, assistant professor of exercise science in the School of Education, has received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study the effects of resistance exercise on people with severe cannabis use disorders (CUDs). It’s the first such study, Thomas says.

Thomas, director of the Exercise Prescription Laboratory (ExRx Lab), will perform this research under the NIH Small Grant Program (R03), for projects completed in two years or less.

“Given this increased prevalence of problematic cannabis use, identifying effective behavioral strategies for individuals experiencing problems with addiction would offer significant benefits,” Thomas says. “Exercise, particularly resistance exercise, is a behavioral intervention with considerable potential as an adjunctive treatment for CUD.”

Rates of hazardous use of cannabis—the most widely used illicit drug—and CUDs have continued to rise in recent years. Increased exposure produces higher risk for detrimental psychological and behavioral effects of cannabis use, Thomas says.

The study will address these issues by implementing an acute resistance exercise protocol in men and women with severe CUD. The study will examine the effects of acute resistance exercise on craving, mood, anxiety and markers of reward and stress regulation, and the trajectory of these effects in the subsequent days.

As an exercise physiologist, Thomas focuses on exercise endocrinology and exercise prescription in the management of chronic disease in at-risk health populations. Her research examines the role of resistance exercise in prevention and treatment of chronic disease, with particular interest in metabolic and immune mechanisms.

Explaining “an acute bout of exercise,” she says: “My lab looks at acute protocols and chronic protocols. An acute bout of resistance exercise is one session, or basically one workout. If you string a bunch of workouts together, you have a chronic protocol.

“So basically what I’m hoping to investigate is how will one session affect the hormonal response that can then affect craving” and other markers.

She will recruit participants to meet eligibility requirements who are either community or University members.

The project is a collaboration between the Exercise Prescription Laboratory and the REPEAT Lab in the Department of Psychology, run by Emily Ansell, associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. The REPEAT lab uses repeated measurement to understand individual differences in risk and resilience.

Thomas is the principal investigator on the grant, and Ansell is co-investigator.

This is the second NIH grant to the Department of Exercise Science in two years and the fourth among current faculty, says Tom Brutsaert, professor of exercise science and department chair.

“It is significant that our faculty are successfully competing for federal research dollars from the NIH and underscores the importance of physical activity and exercise as primary factors determining population and individual-level health and well-being,” he says.

“This R03 award recognizes the merit of Dr. Thomas’ project investigating cannabis use and resistance exercise, and signifies this work as an important area of research inquiry,” says School of Education Associate Dean for Research Melissa Luke. “We anticipate that Dr. Thomas’ innovative work has a high potential for additional NIH funding in the future.”

Thomas cites the goal of the NIH and the National Institute on Drug Abuse to develop new and improved treatments to help people with substance use disorders achieve and maintain meaningful, sustained recovery. “Resistance exercise is a treatment that could produce promising results,” she says. “Resistance exercise is an intervention that is both easy to implement, readily available, could support abstinence, and address psychological effects associated with early withdrawal.”

The study’s findings will inform further development of exercise interventions for individuals with CUD, she adds.