Walking Cure: Strolls Can Help Teen Smokers to Quit

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Is the buzz from exercise enough to compensate for nicotine hits from cigarettes?

Researchers studying new smoking cessation methods among teens report that yes, physical activity may actually have an effect on smoking rates. The scientists, from George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) report that teen smokers who upped the number of days they exercised for 20 minutes didn’t not light up as much as teens who weren’t as active. In fact, some teens who participated in both smoking cessation and fitness programs were able to kick their habit for good.

The study involved 233 teen smokers attending 19 high schools in West Virginia, which has one of the highest teen smoking rates and one of the lowest physical activity rates in the U.S. On average, the participants in the study smoked a pack  of cigarettes a day.

(MORE: Exercise Helps Young Smokers Quit)

The high schoolers were split into three groups. One group enrolled in an anti-smoking program paired with a fitness component. Another group went through just the anti-smoking program and another group only listened to an anti-smoking lecture. Although the researchers found that all of the groups reported exercising more to some degree, the teens who reported increasing the number of days they were physically active for 20 minutes or more — by taking, for example, a moderately long walk — significantly cut back on their smoking.

“We don’t fully understand the clinical relevance of ramping up daily activity to 20 or 30 minutes a day with these teens. But we do know that even modest improvements in exercise may have health benefits. Our study supports the idea that encouraging one healthy behavior can serve to promote another, and it shows that teens, often viewed as resistant to behavior change, can tackle two health behaviors at once,” said lead study author Kimberly Horn, an associate dean of research at SPHHS in a statement.

In a previous, but similar study, Horn found that teens who exercised were more likely to quit, and boys had better success in kicking the habit when they were working out than girls. In 2011, TIME covered Horn’s study and she stressed the power of  modest exercise in a smoking cessation program. She said:

“We’re very hopeful that it may not require a big dose of extra time to get these kids thinking about changing their physical activity behaviors and their smoking behavior at the same time. In these times of tight funding and limited resources, if we can target two health behaviors with a single intervention, then we can make a great impact on health and health economics.”

(MORE: Social Smoking Is No Better for Your Brain)

More research is needed to confirm whether this small study applies to more adolescents, and more importantly, to figure out what aspects of physical activity contribute to smoking cessation — are there physiological changes that can combat the addictive qualities of nicotine, or is the act of exercising simply a distraction from smoking?  But if additional studies show that exercise can be an important part of helping teens to quit smoking, it may become a cost effective addition to existing cessation methods. That’s especially important given that declines in teen smoking rates appear to have stalled, and that more than 80% of adult smokers start before they turn 18 according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).