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Exercise May Help Fight Cigarette Cravings

July/August, 2007
American Cancer Society

A brisk 5-minute walk can help cut cigarette cravings, according to a recent meta-analysis

A few minutes of exercise can help reduce cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms, according to a recent systematic review of 14 clinical studies. Based on those findings, researchers from the University of Exeter (Devon, UK) say doctors should recommend exercise to their patients who are trying to quit smoking.

"General practitioners should be asking patients to think about the times and situations they really want a cigarette and advise them to seek to incorporate short bouts of exercise around these," said Adrian Taylor, PhD, Associate Professor in Exercise and Health Psychology in the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter.

Taylor and his colleagues identified (from searches of several electronic databases and from reference lists of relevant articles) and reviewed studies that looked at the acute effect of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, mood, or smoking behavior among smokers trying to quit or temporarily abstain from smoking. Two studies compared different intensities of exercise, while the remaining 12 compared exercise with no exercise. Their results were published in the journal Addiction (2007;102:534?543).

The analysis found a significant reduction in cigarette cravings with exercise, even when the activity was low intensity (stretching or isometrics) and as brief as 5 minutes. Longer periods of more intense exercise?a brisk 15-minute walk, for instance?held cravings at bay for as long as 50 minutes. Exercise also helped lessen the severity of withdrawal symptoms, including stress, anxiety, tension, poor concentration, irritability, and restlessness.

Taylor said exercise could be an alternative to snacking for many smokers who are trying to quit, especially since the amount of exercise required to cut cravings is minimal. It doesn't require a trip to the gym or other major time commitment. The key is to simply do something active when the urge to smoke strikes.

"People tend to think of exercise as a visit to the gym, or requiring the need to put on specific clothing, or to be done on a set number of days a week, or only possible at weekends when time is less of a problem," he observed. "If it takes an average of 6 minutes to smoke a cigarette, then doing a brisk walk for this period may be sufficient to help remove the urge."

Tom Glynn, PhD, Director, Cancer Science and Trends, and Director, International Tobacco Programs for the ACS, agreed that encouraging smokers to exercise could be valuable and should be a part of every smoker's quitting plan. He cautioned, though, that exercise shouldn't be the only option doctors discuss with patients. There are several types of cessation aids that have proven success in helping smokers quit, including nicotine-replacement therapy, antidepressant and other medications, and counseling.

Glynn said physicians, despite their enormous time pressures, should spend a couple of minutes at every visit on the "5As" of a smoking-cessation intervention: asking patients if they smoke; advising them to quit; assessing their willingness to make a quit attempt; assisting them in finding cessation aids (including exercise); and arranging follow up to see how they're faring in their quit attempt.

Although there have been no direct comparisons of exercise and pharmacological cessation aids, Taylor said the magnitude of the effect found in his review is comparable with that seen with some medications.

"What we do know is that success rates for quitting (after 1 year) using even the best aids and support available are not much more than 25%, so there is scope for finding new aids," he said.

And for smokers who cannot take medication, exercise is a realistic and valuable option, he pointed out.

"Giving a quitter an understanding of the options available, of which exercise is now clearly one, is important," Taylor said. "Exercise has many other benefits and no side effects. It needs to be promoted as a cheap and convenient, serious option as a smoking cessation aid."
 

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