There is a hilarious “Saturday Night Live” sketch from 1977 starring John Belushi, who is shown flaunting his chubby physique in tight-fitting athletic wear and seems to be effortlessly sailing through athletic events like a high jump and a track race to the delight and cheers of sports fans. The scene then cuts to Belushi sitting with a bowl of “Little Chocolate Donuts” extolling the virtues of the dubiously-named, sugar-packed “Donuts of Champions.” As if all that wasn’t enough, the joke was driven home by Belushi’s burning cigarette in hand. Pretty outlandish, right? Well, maybe not so much.
When I decided to start working on my own fitness and health, not only was I painfully out of shape, but I was also a smoker. For some reason, I thought that starting out with running would be a good idea so I would set out on a local outdoor running trail early in the morning and was able to work my way up to 2 miles 2- 3 times per week. The only thing is that when I was getting close to home, all I could think of was sitting down with a cup of coffee as my reward – along with a cigarette! This went on for a while, and in addition, I started weight training. It turned out that working with weights became kind of a healthy obsession for me, and consequently I started eating more healthfully. I was dropping weight and could see muscle definition – and I was really excited about it! However, I was still smoking. I started reading up on body building and saw somewhere that smoking was detrimental to muscle growth – which should seem obvious, but when you are addicted to nicotine, you tend to overlook reality.
I finally decided that quitting would be the best way for me to make progress in changing my physique, so that’s exactly what I did. Contrary to the concerns of many in regards to side-effects, I did NOT gain any weight at all. If anything, my motivation to exercise and eat well was strengthened. It helped that I replaced the habit of holding a cigarette in my hand with a new one of holding a water bottle – a much healthier replacement than food.
Was it wrong for me to start exercising while I was still in the habit of smoking? I can attest by my personal experience that by starting one healthy habit and succeeding with it, I was better able to take the next step and kick a habit that was not only going to hold me back from achieving my fitness goals, but in the long run could be very dangerous.
There are many people who need to start an activity program, but may be holding off because they do smoke and do not feel inclined to quit right away. Research has shown that the benefits of exercising and smoking far outweigh the double-whammy risk factors of smoking and being sedentary. In fact, exercising has a protective effect on smokers that somewhat mitigates harmful cardiovascular and lung conditions. Of course, this does not mean that if you keep exercising and smoking, you will be protected always. Ideally, you would set a quit date and work toward stopping completely (and, of course, continue to exercise afterward). There are so many helpful programs to help now. Personally, I completed a course through the American Lung Association called “Freedom from Smoking,” which can now be done online as well as in a group setting. These are preferable to using nicotine-replacement meds (patches, gum, etc.) solely. Not only do you get the benefit of interacting with others who are going through the same issues, but also tools like meditation and stress management are elements that help with the process. And of course, exercise is encouraged, so if you already have that down, you are off to a head-start!
Your body begins to recover and repair from the harmful effects of smoking almost immediately upon putting out your last cigarette. Lung tissue can regenerate, and inflammation can subside, circulation improves as well as markers, such as resting heart rate and blood pressure. Over the long-term, improved physical performance can be expected, and, of course, maintaining a healthy body composition is easier as a result. Another long-term benefit of using exercise to help quit and stay off cigarettes is the effect on mood and depression. Quitters with depression are at a higher risk of turning back to tobacco. Exercise can combat that with its known mood-elevating effects. In a study published in “Nicotine and Tobacco Research,” it was discovered that after 18 months, simply taking moderate regular walks eased withdrawal symptoms in subjects, even if depression was still an issue.
If you are a smoker and are wondering whether to quit smoking or start exercising or worrying that it might be dangerous to exercise while you are smoking, know that starting with physical activity is easier at first and can get you to the state of mind where you can more readily quit tobacco. The health and mental benefits of getting active pretty much outweigh any risks of exercising while smoking (although it is a good idea to check with a physician to rule out potential heart complications). Of course, being sensible about starting an activity program and starting with moderation is a good idea whether you smoke or not.
It may not be a stretch of the imagination that it is possible to perform feats of athletic proficiency if you are a smoker (or a consumer of chocolate doughnuts), but if you know that exercise can help you quit an unhealthy habit, that is just one more tool in the fight to quit smoking.