Exercise Helps Teens Quit Smoking, Study Shows

A recent study proves that exercising is one the top solutions for getting teen cigarette smokers to kick the habit and quit for good.

The study, published in journal Pediatrics, looked at the effects of adding exercise regimes to teen-focused smoking cessation programs and found that a program that combines counseling with physical activity may offer teens a more effective way to stop smoking.

"Oftentimes people believe that kids aren't interested in quitting and that they won't take part in an intervention. This study offers a strong case that it is possible to effectively intervene with teen smokers," said study author and lead researcher Kimberly Horn, a professor in the department of community medicine at West Virginia School of Medicine in Morgantown.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 17 percent of American teenagers are smokers. About one-third of teen smokers will continue to smoke and will die later in life from a smoking-related disease.

Horn said that in West Virginia, smoking rates are high and exercise rates are low. Her study arose from the fact that some research in adults suggests exercise can help smokers quit – possibly by easing withdrawal symptoms or taking the edge off cigarette cravings.

Horn teamed up with Not On Tobacco (NOT), which is the American Lung Association’s quit program geared specifically for high school students, to complete the study’s experiment portion.

A total of 233 students participated. Horn’s team randomly assigned 19 high school schools to offer either the standard cessation program, the program plus exercise advice or a “brief intervention” in which a teen smoker had one session with a program facilitator from NOT.

Adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Jonathan Pletcher, from the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburg said teenage smoking differs from adults who are addicted to nicotine.

“There’s a lot about smoking and adolescents and that’s very different than smoking and adults. Teens pick up smoking for a wide variety of reasons. Smoking may be the norm in your peer group, or you may be dating someone who smokes. Smoking may be a way to rebel against your parents. Nicotine addiction often isn’t the driving factor,” Pletcher said in USA Today.

“If teens are going to stop smoking, they have to know why they’re smoking and institute new behaviors to replace the old ones,” Pletcher added.

Exercise is exactly the replacement activity Horn explored in her study and found that through the right services, teens will quit.

The study found that after six months, the NOT-plus-exercise group had the highest self-reported quit rate, at 31 percent. That is compared with 21 percent in the standard program and just fewer than 16 percent in the brief-intervention group.

“Exercise can build feelings of self-efficacy and make teens feel like they can change their behavior. It also causes the release of lactic acid from the muscles and endorphins, which can replace some of those internal reinforcers that come from smoking," Pletcher said.

Horn said, "Physical activity, even in small or moderate doses, can greatly increase the odds of quitting, and this type of approach attempts to change more than one behavior.”

"In West Virginia, we have tremendous health disparities around obesity and tobacco use. If we can target and reduce those health risk behaviors simultaneously, the burden on the health care system could be reduced,” she said.

Study participants used step counters or pedometers to monitor moderate activity. Horn said that in future reports the researchers plan to look at whether the program really did boost kids' activity levels, and whether the type of exercise matters when it comes to quitting smoking.