When a cigarette craving hits, going for a run may curb it for a while, according to a new study.
After analyzing 19 previous clinical trials, researchers discovered that an exercise session helped smokers tone down their nicotine cravings. Whether or not this translates into a greater chance of quitting, however, is still unclear.
“Certainly, exercise seems to have temporary benefits, and as such can be strongly recommended,” Adrian A. Taylor, Ph.D., a professor of exercise and health psychology at the University of Exeter in the U.K.
For the study, Taylor and a research team combined the results from small clinical trials that tested the immediate effects of exercise on cigarette cravings. Smokers were randomly assigned to engage in one of two things: either exercise — mostly brisk walking or biking — or a “passive” activity, such as watching a video or just sitting quietly.
Overall, the participants who exercised reported having less desire to smoke than they did before.
“After exercise, smokers reported about one-third lower cravings compared with being passive,” Taylor said.
The exact reason is unknown. But one possibility, Taylor suggests, is that exercise works as a distraction. It might also boost people’s mood, so that the desire to feel better through smoking isn’t as strong, he added.
None of the smokers in these studies were in a smoking-cessation program or using nicotine replacement products, such as patches or gum. Since nicotine replacement therapy eases cravings, Taylor noted, exercise might not be as effective for smokers who use those products or other smoking cessation medications.
Those include the prescription drugs varenicline (Chantix) and bupropion (Zyban and generics).
Overall, exercise is a healthy habit for anyone. And, Taylor pointed out, smokers often gain weight when they try to quit—one reason that some people, particularly women, return to smoking.
“So increasing (calorie) expenditure can help to reduce weight gain after quitting,” Taylor said.
The researchers suggest that smokers try a combination of therapies—not only nicotine replacement or medication, but behavioral counseling as well.