Quitting smoking is tough - so tough, in fact, that new evidence suggests that it could take most smokers over 30 quit attempts to finally stop smoking. With that knowledge, it is essential we arm ourselves with as many tools as we can to prepare for a successful quit attempt.
Physical activity is one of those tools that is proven to help reduce cravings, while providing many other benefits when people quit smoking. Yes, that means it is time to dig those tracksuit bottoms out from the bottom drawer, clean up those old trainers, and hit the road!
EXERCISE AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY VS CRAVINGS
Keeping yourself busy when you come face to face with a craving is one way to fight through it. Exercise is very effective at this - it is a distraction that requires effort and focus, and stresses the body sufficiently that the craving takes a back seat.
Studies have shown that short periods of aerobic exercise reduce the urge to smoke, as well as help deal with nicotine withdrawal symptoms both during exercise and for up to fifty minutes afterwards!
Controlled trials conducted in 2009 at the University of Exeter examined brain activity in smokers when exposed to images that would normally trigger a craving. An fMRI scan was used to assess the brain activity in smokers when exposed to these images before and after exercise, after fifteen hours of no smoking.
The results showed that the areas of the brain active for cigarette cravings are not activated in the same way after exercise. The smokers themselves reported less nicotine cravings after exercise, compared with no exercise.
A 2021 systematic review examined 18 trials, totalling 2815 subjects and found moderate evidence that exercise was better than ‘usual care’ at encouraging smoking cessation at short term follow up.
EXERCISE BOOST ENERGY LEVELS
A common feeling when quitting smoking is fatigue - without nicotine to stimulate and wake you up, the impact this has on your brain’s chemical messengers means that things can feel like they aren’t working as fast as they usually do.
This can be frustrating when trying to cajole yourself into exercising - how do you find the energy to go for a run when you feel so sluggish and lacking in energy?
The answer that you don’t want to hear is the answer you need to hear - you just have to get out and go! More often than not, it is the perception of energy levels that puts you off exercise, but by exercising you improve your energy levels - much like heavy machinery that needs to warm up before it can be used, you need to get your engine running and warmed up and then you will find the energy you thought you didn’t have.
One randomised controlled trial conducted in 2008 examined thirty six young adults reporting persisting feelings of fatigue, splitting them into three groups: moderate intensity exercise, low intensity exercise and no exercise. Lab visits for exercise were conducted three times a week for six weeks.
The results showed that feelings of fatigue were dependent on exercise intensity, but improvements in feelings of energy were similar for both exercise groups. This suggests that the more intense the exercise, the more likely it is to improve your feelings of fatigue, but even moderately intense exercise should see improvements in your energy levels.
HOW EXERCISE IMPROVES MOOD WHEN YOU ARE TRYING TO QUIT SMOKING
One of the tough aspects of quitting smoking is the mental hardship that depriving your brain of nicotine engenders. By smoking, you increase the number of nicotine receptors that are present in the brain, and your brain comes to expect the input from nicotine to get things working properly.
When you stop smoking, these receptors do not function as they should, which prevents effective communication between brain cells. This can lead to ‘brain fog’ which is, essentially, slowed cognition.
The impact on your brain doesn’t stop there - feeling anxious and depressed is normal when quitting, and this comes down to the action of nicotine. Dopamine signalling is thrown off by nicotine (and other addictive substances), which goes some way to explaining why addiction occurs.
A study from the University of Lübeck in Germany found that it takes about 3 months for the dopamine systems to return to normal when you stop smoking, indicating that quitters can expect feelings of anxiety and depression for up to 3 months after quitting cigarettes, though it is likely to be worse in the early stages and taper off toward the 3 month mark.
LIMITS WEIGHT GAIN ASSOCIATED WITH QUITTING SMOKING
One of the natural responses to stopping smoking is an increase in appetite - nicotine activates an appetite suppressing pathway in the brain, so no nicotine coming in often results in an increased consumption of food - this leads to a caloric surplus, which means an increase in body weight.
That isn’t the only reason quitters tend to eat more; as the olfactory organs recover - the nose and mouth - the ability to taste and smell improves, making food and drinks more enjoyable than when you were smoking! In addition, the desire to keep the hands busy can lead to more food handling… which leads to more eating!
One of the typical strategies for dealing with weight gain is to exercise - something as simple as walking for an hour burns between 210 and 360 calories, so getting an hour walk in five days a week will burn in the region of 1,050 and 1800 calories at the same time as neutralising cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
EXERCISE HELPS MANAGE STRESS WHEN QUITTING CIGARETTES
Exercise decreases levels of stress chemicals in the body - cortisol is known as ‘the stress’ hormone, and adrenaline is associated with the ‘fight or flight’ response. Another of the beneficial effects of exercise is the ability to trigger the release of endorphins.
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers, and there is research to suggest that endorphin release is triggered after 30 minutes of exercise. Some types of exercise also trigger the release of reward chemicals like dopamine, causing phenomena like the ‘runner’s high’ that joggers experience after a while on the road.
HOW EXERCISE SERVES AS A GOOD DISTRACTION
If nothing else, exercise works as a great distraction from a tobacco addiction. It offers a chance to keep your mind occupied by focusing on the task at hand. If it’s an exercise you enjoy, like weight training or running, then it should be easy to lose yourself in the activity.
Finding an exercise partner can be a great way to capitalise on the benefits of exercise and adds a social aspect to it, which can further improve the stress-busting capabilities of physical activity.
It also means you can compete in two player sports like badminton or tennis, with a little friendly competition encouraging you to work a little harder and doing an even better job of keeping your mind off smoking!
TYPES OF EXERCISES THAT CAN HELP WHEN YOU QUIT
The important thing to keep in mind when choosing an exercise to help you with quitting smoking is that it needs to be challenging enough to feel the benefits. While a ten minute walk is a great start and will do some good, it is unlikely to trigger a release of dopamine or endorphins.
Therefore, you need to engage in moderate exercise for a sufficiently long period of time to see tangible benefits, or a more intense form of exercise for a shorter time period. For those with a busy daily schedule, going out for a short but intense run is likely to be the best way to get the benefits of exercise.
The key is to do exercise in a way that you enjoy - for some this means solitary running or gym sessions, but for others it means competitive sport or group activities. Taking some classes at a gym could deliver on the right intensity exercise for a decent amount of time, and allows for that social interaction. See what you can find that appeals to you - from a ‘simple’ aerobics class, to a body pump session, or even martial arts!
Just remember that if you haven’t exercised for a while, start slow and build up the intensity over time. Injuring yourself is not likely to help your situation, it will likely lead to more smoking, so please please please start your exercise regime softly if you aren’t already exercising regularly.
HOW REGULAR EXERCISE CAN HELP YOU FIGHT THE URGE TO SMOKE CONCLUSION
The benefits of regular exercise cannot be understated. It is a natural way to improve your mood, improve your sleep and feel better about yourself - these things are essential when making an attempt to quit smoking as they will help prevent you from a relapse.
Exercise also helps to clear toxins from your system through means of sweating, adding another benefit for exercise during a quit attempt.
As it is nicotine that causes these issues, quitting smoking with an electronic cigarette offers a way of cutting out the harmful chemicals taken in when smoking tobacco, but avoiding the nicotine withdrawal symptoms. This means no tar to clog up the lungs and no carbon monoxide sticking to red blood cells.
If you want to get off tobacco, but the thought of nicotine withdrawal is putting you off, try switching to an e-cigarette today and you will be reducing the harm done to yourself by 95%.
SMOKO’s premium e-liquids are made here in the UK, so if you are looking for a premium e-cigarette product, make sure to check out SMOKO’s E-cigarette starter kit today!