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Low-level exercise reduces cravings and withdrawal symptoms

Smoking cessation

Smoking cessation

Smokers trying to quit are often advised to exercise to prevent weight gain, but the required level of exercise takes effort and is often not achieved. However, smokers attempting to quit also benefit from low-level exercise, which is easier to achieve.

In the journal Addiction, researchers have published the first systematic review of the impact of small amounts of exercise on helping smokers to quit. They found that even low-intensity exercise, lasting a few minutes, significantly reduces cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

The review covered 14 studies, of which 12 compared an exercise and non-exercise group. The remaining two studies compared different intensities of exercise. The studies looked at the short-term effect of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, mood and smoking behaviour in smokers trying to quit.

The analysis revealed a significant reduction in cigarette cravings with exercise, even when it was low intensity (isometrics or stretching) and of short duration (five minutes). Longer periods of exercise, such as a 15-minute brisk walk, held cravings at bay for as long as 50 minutes. Withdrawal symptoms were also significantly reduced. These included reductions in stress, anxiety, poor concentration, irritability and restlessness.

Brief exercise has considerable potential as a coping strategy for smokers attempting to quit. The effect size is comparable to that seen with short-acting nicotine replacement therapy, and even more immediate. The main mechanism of action appears to be neurobiological, rather than simple distraction or improvement in mood.

More research in this area is needed, but there is already enough evidence for GPs to recommend short bouts of exercise as an adjunct to other treatments for patients trying to quit smoking.

Taylor AH, Ussher MH, Faulkner G. The acute effects of exercise on cigarette cravings, withdrawal symptoms, affect and smoking behaviour: a systematic review. Addiction 2007; doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2006.01739.x


Dr Kevin Lewis
Former GP, Clinical Director of Smoking Cessation, Shropshire County Primary Care Trust

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