How Does Exercise Help a Smoker Quit?
Most smokers trying to quit experience hard-to-manage cravings for tobacco that make it difficult to stay with their plan. A growing body of evidence shows that exercise can help people handle these cravings and resist relapse.
For example, a 2009 study looked at how exercise affects self-reported cravings in smokers following 15 hours of nicotine abstinence. The study also used MRI scanning to assess activation in various parts of the brain associated with reward, motivation, and attention. The researchers found that after only 10 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, smokers reported lower cravings in response to smoking images, and MRI scans showed less activation in associated parts of the brain. Although the study was small, it confirmed previous evidence that a single session of exercise can reduce cigarette cravings. The study also provided the first evidence of a shift in regional brain activation in response to smoking cues following exercise.
Another study, from 2007, showed that smokers’ withdrawal symptoms and nicotine cravings decreased significantly during a single bout of aerobic exercise and remained measurably lower for nearly an hour after exercising. The positive effects were seen whether participants exercised vigorously or at a low level of exertion. An earlier study conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine showed that moderate-intensity physical activity can be a useful adjunct to standard smoking cessation treatment. This study revealed that the more smokers exercised, the less likely they were to resume smoking.
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Although numerous studies have shown no difference in quit rates between smokers who exercise and those who don’t, many experts believe that physicians and therapists should prescribe an appropriate level of physical activity to their patients who want to quit smoking.
As described in the chapter, the physical benefits of quitting smoking are tremendous.
Regular physical activity enhances some of these benefits, such as improved lung function, blood pressure, and overall fitness. The jury is still out, however, on whether exercise further decreases the risk of certain diseases (including heart disease and cancer) among current and former smokers, beyond the risk reduction achieved simply by quitting smoking. A great deal of research is being done on this question.
Many smokers worry about weight gain associated with quitting. Although most ex-smokers gain a few pounds, at least temporarily, incorporating exercise into a new, tobacco-free lifestyle lays the foundation for healthy weight management. Research findings vary on the effect of exercise on weight gain after quitting smoking, but at least one new study shows that while exercise might not reduce short-term weight gain among new exsmokers, physical activity does produce weight loss over the long term. Regardless, the health risks of adding a few pounds are far outweighed by the risks of continued smoking. According to one estimate, an ex-smoker would have to gain 75-100 pounds to equal the health risks of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.
Interventions for preventing weight gain after smoking cessation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Online) (1): CD006219; Taylor, A. H., et al. 2007. The acute effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, affect and smoking behavior: A systematic review. Addiction 102(4): 534-543; Van Rensburg,
J. K., et al. 2009. Acute exercise modulates cigarette cravings and brain activation in response to smoking-related images: An fMRI study. Psychopharmacology 203(3): 589-598; Williams, D. M., et al. 2005. The effect of moderate intensity exercise on smoking cessation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 35(7) Supplement May 2005: S175.
• Continued alcohol use has negative effects on the digestive and cardiovascular systems and increases cancer risk and overall mortality. Women who drink while pregnant risk giving birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome.
• Alcohol use disorder involves drinking in dangerous situations or drinking to a degree that causes academic, professional, interpersonal, or legal difficulties.
• Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is characterized by more severe problems with alcohol, usually involving tolerance and withdrawal.
• Binge drinking is a common form of alcohol misuse on college campuses that has negative effects on both drinking and nondrinking students.
• Nicotine is the addictive psychoactive drug in tobacco products.
• In the short term, smoking can either excite or tranquilize the nervous system; it also interferes with the functions of the respiratory system. Long-term effects of smoking include higher rates of acute and chronic diseases and reduced life expectancy.
• Other forms of tobacco use cigars, pipes, clove cigarettes, and spit tobacco also have serious associated health risks.
• Environmental tobacco smoke contains toxic and carcinogenic compounds in high concentrations. It causes health problems, including cancer and heart disease, in nonsmokers exposed to it; infants and children are especially at risk.
• Many approaches and products are available to aid people in quitting smoking.