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Drugs & Health Blog

Student Athletics: The “Anti-Opioid”

The NIDA Blog Team

We’ve noted that some athletes can be at high risk for misusing prescription opioid pain relievers to help them deal with pain related to sports injuries. (These are pills with brand names like Vicodin, OxyContin, or Percocet, and people can become addicted to them.)

So we’re glad to report that, if you’re a teen athlete, a recent study has found that you’re actually less likely to misuse prescription opioids than teens who don’t participate in sports or exercise regularly. It appears that those activities are protective factors for misusing opioids—including the illegal drug heroin, an opioid chemically related to prescription pain relievers.

That’s all pretty great to know. You may, however, be wondering: When it comes to misusing opioids, what is protective about sports and exercise?

Winning the game

First, let’s look at exactly what the study found. Researchers looked at responses from nearly 192,000 teens in NIDA’s Monitoring the Future survey between 1997 and 2014. About half were eighth graders and nearly half were tenth graders.

  • About 11 percent of the non-athletes said they had misused opioids at some point, compared with about 8 percent of teens who participated in sports or exercise once a week and just under 7 percent of those who participated almost daily.
  • A little over 2 percent of non-athletes in the survey had used heroin at some point, compared to just 1 percent of those engaging in sports or exercise once a week or more.
  • Teens who exercised or played sports on a daily basis had a 26 percent lower risk of misusing opioids over their entire lifetime, and a 34 percent lower risk of using heroin in their lifetime.
  • The connection between sports participation and lower rates of opioid misuse and heroin use applied even to teen athletes in sports with a higher risk of injury, like football.

A natural high

As for why student athletes are less likely to misuse opioids, one reason the researchers mention is simply that the athletes are doing something they enjoy (physical activity). If you’re already getting a lot of satisfaction from a healthy activity, drugs may seem less appealing in comparison. Another factor might be the positive social interactions that come with participating in sports.

There are also causes you can’t see. The body produces its own natural opioids, called endorphins. When you engage in physical activity, your endorphins can cause a release of the chemical dopamine; as a result, you feel what some people call a “runner’s high.”

This feeling not only can make you want to stick with your exercise routine or sport; it also can reduce some of the aches and pains that come with a good workout—without the risks of addiction and death that can result from misusing prescription opioids.

So suit up, or hit the gym, or just go for a run. You’ll feel better, and if you keep at it, you may also be protecting yourself against opioid misuse.

Learn more: what’s the deadliest opioid?

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


Great article and good to learn the positives that DO in fact exist. My concern would and does still remain with our young adults wanting to 'fit in' and falling victim to peer pressure. In addition, a sports injury is one of the main reasons that our young people become addicted - uneducated physicians and parents!!!! A LACK OF PREVENTION EDUCATION IS A HUGE REASON AND WHY WE ARE WHERE WE ARE TODAY!! In the midst of a National Epidemic - so sad.
Awesome article, I agree with this article and learned some GOOD information. I like how it shows information that students that are active are less likely to misuse opioids. Even though they have lots of people addicted to opioids. They SHOULD take ACTION of looking at side effects and seek help for addicts. People should be more aware of this problem and educate students of this this issue to create a better world.
Student Athletics: The anti-opioid by the NIDA Blog team I thought that this blog was great! It gave so much information and answered so may questions that I had. Because all you ever hear is about who was recently is taking a illegal drug. But most people don't seem to realize that it is more popstars than it is pro-athletes. Thank you for putting why that is. I agree with you because we don't need anymore druggies in the world. We already have enough. This blog showed me how much I need to help kids get active and help myself become more active in my everyday day life
This article really helped learn about who is more likely to missuse drugs.

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