Even short bouts of light exercise such as strolling can help smokers quit by reducing cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms, say scientists at the University of Exeter in the UK.
The study was published in the April edition of the journal Addiction.
The scientists suggest that a short session of moderate exercise, lasting for as little as five minutes, is sufficient to reduce cravings for a cigarette.
“People who struggle to give up smoking could make things much easier for themselves by taking just moderate exercise,” said lead author Dr Adrian Taylor of the University of Exeter’s School of Sport and Health Sciences.
“Not only may it help prevent weight gain but it will also help control the cravings and withdrawal symptoms that often lead to relapse,” he added.
On National No Smoking Day which occurs every year in the UK, it is expected that one third of UK smokers (around 4 million people) try to give up and 85,000 do so for good.
Dr Taylor and his co-authors reviewed 12 studies on the effect of a single session of exercise compared to no exercise on three outcome measures: cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms and smoking behaviour. All reported beneficial impact on at least one of the three outcome measures.
The papers they reviewed covered between them nearly 1,400 people who rarely exercised and in all but one study stopped smoking during the period of the experiment.
The participants were assessed while they were doing the exercise using single and multi-item questions on cravings, symptoms of withdrawal and negative affect, the results of which reduced rapidly during exercise and remained reduced for up to 50 minutes afterwards.
Most of the studies on withdrawal symptoms showed a significant reduction in 2 of 6 symptoms: stress, restlessness, irritability, anxiety, tension and poor concentration.
Most of the studies showed increasing reductions in cravings and withdrawal symptoms with increasing duration and intensity of exercise, but even a short 5 minute seated exercise showed beneficial effects.
Four of the studies reported that the delay in lighting up the first cigarette after doing the exercise lasted two and sometimes three times longer.
Three studies showed that mood improved with exercise, while one did not.
The review team concluded that even small doses of exercise should be recommended to help people manage cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms.
Dr Taylor said “If a drug revealed the same effects it would immediately be marketed as a valuable aid to help people quit smoking or cut down.”
He and his colleagues called for further research to find out what the underlying mechanisms could be such as stress and the neurobiology involved. This could then lead to more effective and practical ways to help people give up smoking.
Dr Taylor and his team at the University of Exeter are also doing research using brain imaging. They are looking at how exercise affects the brain’s mood centres, which could be how the appetite for cigarettes is reduced. They are supporting a national project called “Walk-2-Quit” and want to see exercise recommended by National Health Service smoking cessation clinics.