If you’re trying to quit smoking, starting an exercise program may help you succeed. Exercise often comes with a mindset—specifically a “turning-over-a-new-leaf” mentality.
People who exercise are more likely to have other good health habits, and those who start to exercise regularly are more likely to acquire or maintain other good habits, such as eating a healthy diet or quitting smoking.
Exercise may help smokers quit in a variety of ways, both physical and psychological. A 2007 review in the journal Addiction, which included 12 studies on exercise and smoking cessation, concluded that any moderate-intensity or vigorous exercise—brisk walking or cycling, for example—can help curb nicotine cravings and withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, stress, and poor concentration. Exercise also increases some of the same mood-enhancing brain chemicals that nicotine boosts.
Sticking to an exercise program can improve self-efficacy—that is, your belief that you have the ability to achieve your goals, including quitting smoking.
Moreover, focusing on a positive habit, rather than simply trying to abstain from an unhealthy one, helps some people quit for good. And exercise can also help by reducing the weight gain, or fears of weight gain, often associated with smoking cessation.
What the research says
In a 2008 study from the University of California, San Francisco, 407 smokers received nicotine patches, a quit-smoking drug, and counseling for three months. Half were then given a pedometer and told to work up to walking 10,000 steps a day. After another three months, the walkers were more likely to stay off cigarettes than those who did not exercise.
A 2009 study by researchers at the University of Exeter in England found that even a brief bout of exercise—15 minutes on a stationary bike—made subjects who had not smoked for 15 hours pay less attention to smoking “cues” (such as images of people smoking) they were subsequently shown, thus reducing the desire to smoke and the likelihood they would light up. Seeing other people smoke and similar cues can trigger relapses in people who are trying to abstain.
Sweating instead of puffing
If you’re trying to quit smoking and have been inactive, start with short bouts of low-intensity exercise several times a week, or whenever you feel a strong craving for a cigarette. Find an activity you enjoy and a workout schedule you’ll stick with.
If you know you’re going to be in a situation where you’ll be very tempted to smoke, such as a party, taking a brisk walk or quick spin on the bike beforehand may help reduce the urge.
Bottom line:If you smoke, you need to keep trying new quitting methods until you succeed. These range from nicotine gum and patches to prescription drugs, support groups, hypnotism, and acupuncture.
While the determination to stop is the essential element, quitting successfully also takes planning, sustained effort, and the support of friends and family.
For some people, adding exercise to the mix can improve the odds. And, of course, exercise helps prevent hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes, which are big concerns for smokers, in particular.