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Why Exercise Could Help You Quit Smoking for Good

Photo: Pond5

So you want to quit smoking. And, you’ve also had a 5K race lingering on your bucket list for…well, a while. Before you dismiss one to focus on the other, what if we told you that tackling both of these goals at the same time might just be the best thing you’ve ever done for your body? It may sound crazy, but we’ve got the research to prove it.

Here’s why experts say you should quit your worst habit and commit to fitness, all at the same time — and what you need to know to be successful.

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Why Getting Your Sweat on Might Help You Quit Smoking

Nobody’s denying the fact that quitting cigarettes can be is-this-really-worth-it levels of hard. But according to Carol Southard, RN, MSN, a tobacco treatment specialist at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, research shows that there are higher quit rates when exercise is involved.

“Exercise increases endorphins, is a form of stress relief, helps with sleep at night and helps [prevent] weight gain,” Southard says. “Most of all, smokers who exercise while quitting recognize the benefits sooner than smokers who quit without exercising. I really push it in my practice.”

It turns out that the feel-good sensations triggered by exercise are similar to those from nicotine, and could help replace your cigarette cravings. In one UK study, smokers who rode a stationary bike for just 10 minutes after not smoking for 15 hours reported they had less of an urge to smoke than people who just sat passively. Plus, among the exercisers, brain scans showed increased activation in the area of the brain associated with reward and motivation — the same area thought to be responsible for the feel-good effects of nicotine and other addictive drugs.

It’s not just cardio that can do the trick, either. Strength training can help ease tobacco cravings too, according to a 2011 study in Nicotine & Tobacco Research. Researchers found that when smokers were given a brief counseling session and nicotine patches, plus 12 weeks of weight training, they were 20 percent more likely to report not having smoked in the past week at a six-month check-in than those were got counseling and patches alone. Talk about major gains.

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Just Don’t Try to Diet, Too

Trust us: While getting fit and quitting cigs are great goals — don’t try to lose weight at the same time, too. Nicotine is an appetite suppressant, and about a third of people gain weight after quitting, says Scott McIntosh, PhD, associate professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and director of the Center for a Tobacco-Free Finger Lakes. Luckily, increasing physical activity can help you avoid too much weight gain.

And it’s OK to put a pause on your weight loss ambitions until you’ve got the whole smoking thing under control. “Experts agree that being five to eight pounds heavier is much healthier than continuing to smoke,” says McIntosh. “Instead of focusing on quitting smoking and losing weight, people should focus on quitting smoking and increasing regular physical activity for an overall approach to living healthier.” Among people who do gain a few after quitting, it’s usually easily lost once the body readjusts, says Southard.

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Why Your Body Will Thank You

Neither quitting smoking nor starting a new exercise routine are easy feats. To keep yourself motivated and improve your chances of success, Southard recommends checking in with your body regularly to enjoy the changes you’re feeling and their effect on your energy level, health and appearance.

There will be unseen effects, too: One study compared the blood vessel function of 1,500 people before they quit smoking, and one year later. They found a one percent change in flow-mediated dilation (FMD) — which translates to a 14 percent lower rate of cardiovascular disease. Plus, according to the American Heart Association, after one to nine months of smoke-free living, you can expect clear and deeper breathing to gradually return — which means you may feel less winded during tough workouts to boot.

If you want to quit smoking but you’re not sure where to start, talk to your doctor or call the National Quitline for support, suggests McIntosh. Quitline support is available by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visiting www.smokefree.gov.