Using physical activity to enhance quit rates

Other activities can support people to succeed in their attempts to quit. While nicotine addiction plays a big role in maintaining smoking behaviours, factors such as the social interactions that smoking supports, and psychological causes such as habit, also make it hard for smokers to quit.

Giving people new habits and ways of interacting to replace the gap left by not smoking may therefore be helpful. For example, if someone uses ‘going for a smoke’ with friends and family as a way of having a yarn or as an opportunity to debrief or blow off steam with co-workers, then it is important that they find other ways to engage in these important social interactions. So ‘come and have a smoke with me’ might become ‘come and have a cuppa’ or ‘come for a walk/bike ride/swim’.

There is some evidence that exercise can be an aid to smoking cessation. Recent evidence from Canada has shown that including a structured exercise program alongside nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) can increase quit rates and this is sustained over time. Exercise seems to reduce withdrawal and cravings for cigarettes. This may be because physical activity stimulates the reward centres in the brain in a similar way to smoking. The pleasurable ‘high’ that exercise delivers might also provide a distraction from the cravings and negative thoughts experienced during quitting.

Aerobic exercise (e.g. running, swimming, cycling) and some kinds of strength training (isometric) is especially helpful for reducing withdrawal symptoms and cigarette cravings. Effects can last as long as 50 minutes after the exercise session. As well as starting a regular exercise routine, someone trying to quit might use exercise as a distractor when an urge for a cigarette strikes. This might be as simple as going for a short walk. For more tips on coping with cravings see Box 1.

In the longer term, exercise programs might help prevent relapse by boosting self-esteem, feelings of wellbeing and reinforcing a person’s self-image as a non-smoker and physically active individual.

Box 1: The four Ds guide to beat the craving…

Delay

Delay acting on the urge to smoke. Don’t open a pack or light a cigarette. After a few minutes, the urge to smoke will weaken.

Drink water

Sip some water slowly, holding it in the mouth a little longer to savour the taste.

Deep breaths

Take deep slow breaths in and out and repeat three times. Deep breathing will take the focus off the cravings.

Do something else

To take your mind off smoking, do something else:

  • listen to music
  • go for a walk or exercise
  • or talk to a friend.

Material adapted from:

Further reading