Every year, over two-thirds of current smokers in the United States express a desire to permanently quit. Yet only about 40% actually try to quit smoking in any given year, and of this 40% who attempt, less than 10% are ultimately successful in abstaining from cigarettes for more than six months, even with the most effective of treatment options. In fact, according to research findings, it takes the average smoker up to 10 attempts to permanently kick the habit.
People who attempt to quit smoking on their own without any medical assistance are the least successful, with low-single-digit success rates. Those who combine long-term counseling with nicotine replacement therapy tend to be the most successful with between 8 percent and 17 percent success rates, although some of these reported success rates seem dubious because many rely primarily on self-reported abstinence confirmation versus chemical verification.
Pharmaceutical companies pour millions of dollars into research each year to find new drugs to boost success rates, but so far with no major breakthroughs. What’s worse, a number of the newer pharmaceuticals prescribed by doctors for smoking cessation (anti-depressants) have received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warnings for some pretty scary side effects. Meanwhile, many other companies tout all manner of different products or services to aid in boosting cessation rates ranging from hypnosis to acupuncture to electronic cigarettes, but with little impact in moving the needle.
This is a stark affirmation of just how addictive nicotine is and of how challenging it can be to eliminate a long-term habit.
So What’s a Smoker to Do?
Well, a simple answer that might just double your odds of success and produce positive side effects versus negative ones is … exercise. Seems hard to believe, doesn’t it? Not many studies have looked into the combination of exercise and smoking cessation, but the research that has been done has shown some promise.
Why is exercise a possible valuable addition to a smoking cessation program? According to researchers, exercise has been shown to improve mood, assist in weight loss and reduce cravings — three big-time cigarette smoking withdrawal symptoms.
As a case in point, a new study was published online ahead of print last month in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research that demonstrated that study subjects undergoing a 12-week resistance training (weight-lifting) program boosted abstinence at three-month and six-month follow-up checkpoints by 100% over subjects who did not exercise during the study. Both the control and resistance training groups received one 15-to-20-minute smoking cessation counseling session, and both groups received nicotine patches during the study period so the only differentiating variable between the two groups was the resistance training program.
The absolute abstinence success rate for the resistance training group was 15 percent to 16 percent at both the three-month and six-month follow-up checkpoints compared to 8 percent at both time intervals for the control group. These abstinence results were determined by both self-reported questionnaires and by a chemical analysis of each subject’s carbon monoxide levels.
The 12-week resistance training program followed by the exercise group was described by the researchers as follows: “Participants engaged in two 60-min RT [resistance training] sessions/week for 12 weeks. The full-body routine (ACSM, 2009b), involved 10 exercises, with set intensity and volume adjusted every 3 weeks. For the first 3 weeks, participants completed one set (10 repetitions) of each exercise at 65%–75% of their estimated maximal strength. From weeks 4–12, participants completed two sets per exercise. Weight was systematically increased by a researcher to match gains in strength and maintain intensity at weeks 7–10. Researchers monitored exercise for safety, interactions were minimized, and smoking was not discussed. Participants exercised alone and could attend up to three sessions/week to make up for one missed session in the prior week, with no more than one session/day. All were asked not to engage in RT beyond the supervised sessions or change their other exercise.”
To be fair, the study population was small (25 total subjects), and only 50% of the subjects participated all the way through to the six-month follow-up checkpoint. So one might argue the success rates of both approaches were actually lower if all subjects were tracked the full way through. That said, those subjects engaged in a resistance training program who did make it all the way through this novel study (novel because it examined resistance training versus aerobic training in conjunction with smoking cessation) did achieve higher abstinence, greater weight loss and lower body fat measurements than the control group.
Other studies probing the addition of an exercise component to a smoking cessation program have also shown promise. In one such 2010 study, researchers found 34% of women in the study group who participated in a 150-minute-per-week moderate-intensity aerobic exercise program achieved chemically verified abstinence at six-month follow-up compared to 20% for the control group. In this study, both groups also received one smoking cessation counseling session and nicotine patches for the duration of the study.
In another 2010 study examining the effect of either high-intensity (running) or moderate-intensity (walking) aerobic exercise on the craving to smoke, researchers reported, “Significant group x time interactions were identified, demonstrating significant reductions in craving items after the walking and running conditions compared with the passive control. No significant differences in craving reductions were found between walking and running conditions. Post hoc comparisons found that running condition cravings to smoke scores were reduced for a longer duration post-treatment than post-walking condition scores. The decline in cortisol concentration was attenuated in the running group only. Vigorous exercise has a similar effect to moderate exercise in terms of the magnitude of craving reduction. However, performing bouts of moderate-intensity exercise may be a better recommendation for reducing cravings.”
Exercise Tips for People Who Want to Quit Smoking
It therefore seems that engaging in an exercise program (resistance training and/or aerobic training) while trying to quit smoking is worthy of your consideration. Not only might exercise improve your odds of kicking the habit permanently, it has also been shown to notably improve heart rate variability (a risk factor in cardiovascular disease), reduce the risk of lung cancer, and reduce chronic shortness of breath — even among smokers who continue to light up!
For smokers interested in experimenting with an exercise program but who aren’t sure where to start or what specific exercises to do, consider asking your doctor to recommend a specific exercise program.
Alternatively, consider visiting a local fitness center and ask to speak withy a certified fitness instructor. Associations such as the American College of Sports Medicine create recommended exercise protocols for different health conditions and a fitness instructor should be able to help construct one that is appropriate for you. They will likely charge for their services, but most provide an initial consultation free of charge. But Regardless of what exercise program you choose, it is always advisable to review the program with your physician first to ensure it is appropriate for your particular health status.
 Ciccolo JT, et al. Resistance Training as an Aid to Standard Smoking Cessation Treatment: A Pilot Study. Nicotine & Tobacco Research. April 18, 2011 [Epub ahead of print].
 Williams DM, et al. Moderate intensity exercise as an adjunct to standard smoking cessation treatment for women: a pilot study. Psychol Addict Behav. 2010 June;24(2): 349-354.
 Scerbo F, et al. Effects of exercise on cravings to smoke: the role of exercise intensity and cortisol. J Sports Sci. 2010 Jan;28(1):11-9.