Let’s not kid ourselves — the use of marijuana to get high is increasing, not decreasing (data shows it)… and this is not just a teenage problem. That’s the bad news, but I have good news to share, too, which is that there’s another kind of high that not only feels great but that is now proven to help people kick the pot habit — and it’s actually safe.

Before we get into this news, however, let me share some statistics that I think you may find surprising. According to a survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association (part of the Department of Health and Human Services), the number of Americans age 55 to 59 who smoke marijuana tripled between 2002 and 2008 — from 1.6% of all Americans in that age group to 5.1%. There’s no reason to think that adults older and younger than this aren’t using post, too.

While some people believe that recreational use of marijuana is harmless, nothing could be further from the truth. Pot is not the innocuous substance that we thought it was in our teens. In fact, marijuana smoke contains more carcinogenic hydrocarbons — 50% to 70% more — than cigarette smoke. And then there’s the burnout factor — it’s known that long-term use can impair motivation. In adolescents, marijuana is associated with increased likelihood of developing psychosis. And, if all that isn’t off-putting enough, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, heart rate can escalate by 20% to 100% in the period shortly after smoking marijuana, an effect that can last up to three hours, dramatically raising some users’ risk for heart attack by nearly 500% in the first hour after smoking.

Running Away from the Problem

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me share the surprisingly simple solution — exercise. New research from Vanderbilt University has found that a program of regular exercise is enormously beneficial in helping heavy marijuana users to smoke less. It’s a small study, but the results are compelling.

The research: Twelve marijuana-addicted people (they smoked an average of 5.9 joints per day) who weren’t interested in quitting and who did not have any noted health problems or addictions other than to marijuana (although some smoked cigarettes) agreed to participate in a two-week regimen of five-times-a-week exercise. The previously sedentary participants ran on a treadmill for a half-hour five days a week at a pace that increased their heart rates between 60% and 70% (relatively strenuous, but not an all-out sprint). The researchers found that the workout routine not only reduced the participants’ self-reported desire to smoke (measured by having them rank their cravings when they looked at pictures related to pot-smoking, such as images of marijuana… pictures of people smoking it… and photos of bong, pipes an other paraphernalia, but it also cut their actual use in half, to 2.8 joints per day on average! And, when the study ended and the participants were no longer required to exercise, their marijuana use began to increase all over again.

Works For Other Addictions, Too

Keep in mind that the only change these heavy marijuana users made in their lives during this study was that they started exercising. So to me, the beneficial results seem almost magical. And according to Peter R. Martin, MD, director of the Vanderbilt Addiction Center, where the study was done, there is reason to suspect that this finding would also hold true for other addictions, for instance to cigarettes, alcohol, overeating and gambling. “All addictions have a common basis,” Dr. Martin said, describing an addiction as basically “a natural drive that has gone awry. Exercise seems to be a way to bring the balance back.” Not only that, but abstaining (or at least cutting back) along with adding exercise to your life can help undo the damage that destructive habits have wrought… adding yet another reason to replace your harmful habits with this highly beneficial one. What the long-term effect of exercising would be for a heavy pot user, we don’t yet know… would the desire to smoke reassert itself eventually even with continued exercise? I hope that research will answer that question, too — in the meantime, we now know about an easy, powerful tool that can help right away. There’s no reason not to try it.