We all know that exercise is good for us — it makes us feel great, keeps us in shape, improves our cardiovascular health, and strengthens our muscles and bones as we age. We also know that smoking is one of the most damaging things we can do to our bodies. Cigarette smoke contains a number of harmful chemicals and carcinogens that can cause life-threatening damage to our blood, lungs, heart, and muscles. So, when it comes to exercise and smoking, can the good counteract the bad? In other words, for smokers who exercise regularly, what are the benefits? We unpack it below, and explore how exercise may help with smoking cessation and continued abstinence.
Smokers Who Exercise Regularly: The Benefits
When you think of the effects of smoking, it’s likely that lung damage comes to mind. Unfortunately, the lungs aren’t the only organs affected by tobacco use — smoking affects nearly every organ in the body.
Smoking causes inflammation that usually begins in the pulmonary system before flowing over into the circulatory system, causing widespread damage throughout the body.
Inflammation negatively impacts our protein pathways, meaning our muscles will break down more quickly than they can be regenerated. This is why many smokers experience muscle loss and weakness.
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But can these effects be minimised in some way? Some studies suggest that regular exercise may reduce the risk of developing muscle loss, inflammation and disease from smoking.
Exercise May Reduce Inflammation and Preserve Muscle Mass
A 2017 study by the American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology looked at the inflammation markers of two groups of mice, both of which were exposed to cigarette smoke.
One group of mice exercised, while the other group remained sedentary. Inflammation markers were significantly lower for the smoke-exposed mice who exercised, compared to the smoke-exposed mice who didn’t. Both groups had lower muscle mass than the control group that wasn’t exposed to smoke at all.
The results indicate that endurance training may prevent or reverse muscle loss in current smokers.
Exercise May Slow COPD Progression
Similarly, a 2007 study suggests that exercising may slow down the progression of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The results showed that smokers were 20% less likely to develop the illness if they regularly engaged in moderate to intense exercise.
Exercise May Decrease Cancer Risk
It’s been posited that smokers who engage in regular exercise may be less likely to develop certain cancers. Research by the journal of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention investigated 7,000 smokers and ex-smokers. There was a lower rate of cancer and mortality in participants who exercised regularly and intensely. In fact, there was a 25% reduction in cancer-related deaths among smokers aged 54 to 62 who used a workout program.
The researchers concluded that exercise may help to prevent certain cancers by regulating a person’s weight. An inactive life can lead to obesity, which increases the risk of some cancers.
Smokers already have an increased risk of developing cancer of the colon, rectum, prostate, kidney, breast, and endometrium, so the added factor of obesity can lead to an even higher likelihood of disease development. Exercise can help smokers to regulate their weight and therefore slightly reduce this risk.
Smoking Still Gets The Red Light
Of course, none of these studies suggest smoking should get a green light. No amount of exercise can truly offset the effects of tobacco use.
Regardless of your exercise regime, regular, sustained smoking elevates your risk of developing at least 19 different types of cancer and 7 forms of cardiovascular disease.
The systematic effects of smoking can also hinder your ability to exercise effectively.
Let’s take a look at why that is.
How Smoking Affects Your Ability to Exercise
While it’s clear that you’ll benefit from exercise if you smoke, the reality is that smoking significantly limits your ability to exercise effectively. This is due to the various impacts smoking has on the heart, blood, and lungs.
How Smoking Affects the Heart
Smoking increases your resting heart rate. This means that your heart is working harder to keep you going, even at rest. So, if you engage in vigorous exercise, your already-elevated heart rate is at risk of rising to dangerous levels, which increases your likelihood of experiencing a heart attack.
How Smoking Affects the Blood
When you work out, blood flow helps to supply your muscles with oxygen, which they need to keep you moving. The carbon monoxide and nicotine content in tobacco narrows your arteries and reduces blood flow throughout the body, therefore limiting the amount of oxygen your muscles receive.
When your muscles don’t get enough oxygen, they will begin to produce lactic acid, which is the substance that makes your muscles feel as though they are tired, burning, and sore. In other words, the lack of blood flow caused by smoking hinders your ability to work out effectively.
How Smoking Affects the Lungs
Inhaling cigarette smoke damages the cilia, which are the fine hairlike structures that clear the lungs of dirt, debris, and toxins. In addition to this, tar in cigarettes coats the lungs and reduces the elasticity of the air sacs within the lungs. These changes make breathing more challenging, particularly if you’re engaging in strenuous exercise. Research has proven that smokers find it more difficult to exercise than nonsmokers.
- Benefited less from training
- Had lower muscle mass
- Were three times more likely to experience shortness of breath than non-smokers
- Were twice as likely to be injured
- Required more healing time when injured
Exercise and Quitting Smoking
One of the best things you can do for your health is quit smoking. In a matter of hours, you will begin to see positive changes in your body, and your risk of developing life-threatening disease decreases significantly the longer you go without smoking.
So, how can exercise help with smoking cessation?
Does Exercise Help With Quitting Smoking?
The short answer is yes, exercise can help with quitting smoking.
A study in 2017 followed nicotine-dependent mice for two weeks, splitting them into three groups: mice that exercised for 24 hours a day, two hours a day, and not at all.
The nicotine-treated mice who did two or 24 hours of exercise had a significant reduction in withdrawal symptoms compared to the mice that didn’t exercise at all. Researchers also observed that exercise caused changes to the brain receptors responsible for mood disorders.
The results indicate that exercise can be very beneficial in individuals attempting to give up smoking by reducing withdrawal symptoms, which in turn prevents relapse.
The Benefits of Exercise When You Quit Smoking
So, what are the tangible benefits of exercising when you quit smoking? Exercise can be particularly helpful for
- Lowering stress levels – During the withdrawal phase, you may feel an increase in stress, restlessness, and anxiety. These symptoms will be most intense in the first few days after quitting and will reduce in intensity over a period of two to four weeks. Exercise can help to alleviate feelings of stress by stimulating the release of endorphins, which are essentially ‘feel-good’ hormones.
- Distracting you and reducing cravings – Exercise can help to distract you from thoughts of smoking by prompting you to focus on your body and the present moment.
- Keeping your body healthy – Weight gain is a common concern for people quitting smoking. While smoking can lead to weight loss, this isn’t healthy weight loss. In most cases, weight gain after smoking is a sign that your body is functioning properly again. Exercise will help you stay fit and healthy, as well as help regulate your hunger cues.
How Soon After Quitting Smoking Can I Exercise?
There’s no need to wait to resume exercise after quitting smoking. In fact, the sooner you start, the better!
Exercising will help to increase the capacity of your lungs and improve their ability to absorb oxygen. Though the lungs are very resilient and will begin to self-repair as soon as you stop smoking, you may struggle with coughing and shortness of breath during this recovery period.
It’s best to start off slow with some light daily walking. Aim for 10 to 20-minute blocks at least twice a day, and build up from there. Gradually, you’ll be able to enjoy longer and more intense forms of exercise such as swimming, jogging, and gym sessions.
Some research has suggested that smokers who exercise regularly may have a reduced risk of muscle loss, inflammation, COPD progression, and cancer, compared to smokers who don’t exercise at all.
However, smoking limits your ability to work out effectively due to the impact tobacco has on the heart, blood, and lungs. It’s important to remember that no amount of exercise will truly offset the impacts of smoking, and the best thing you can do for your immediate and long-term health is quit smoking.
Smoking may assist with smoking cessation by stimulating the release of endorphins and reducing withdrawal symptoms such as stress and cravings.
While quitting can be a challenging process, having the right support and strategies can make a real difference. If you’re ready to make your start, you can book a free, bulk-billed telehealth consultation with specialist-trained GPs here.