Although smoking continues to experience generational declines, current estimates show that about 25 percent of teens smoke. New research investigates if those who picked up the habit do so because they have a negative view of themselves.
The reduction in smoking behavior has been a banner for public health researchers with teen smoking rates declining by 15 percent over the last 25 years. Still, among the 25 percent who do smoke, do they make the choice based upon a negative self-image? Does the typical teenage smoker try to balance out this unhealthy habit with more exercise? And if so, then why would an adolescent smoke, yet still participate in recommended levels of physical activity?
A recent study, conducted in part at Concordia University and published in Preventive Medicine Reports, attempted to answer these questions.
Researchers analyzed the survey results from 1,017 young people — smokers and non-smokers, mostly aged 16 or 17 — whose level of physical activity was compared to current Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines and Canadian Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines.
Levels of body-related guilt and shame were lowest among those who exercised regularly and never touched a cigarette. Smokers who were active and met the guidelines reported higher levels of body-related guilt. The unhealthiest group — non-active smokers — reported higher levels of body-related shame.
“Guilt and shame are two distinct entities,” says Erin O’Loughlin, a researcher with Concordia’s Independent Program (INDI) department.
“Shame is tied to self-perception and self-esteem, and reflects a negative evaluation of the self. Guilt has more to do with your actions and reflects a negative evaluation of a specific behavior — in this case, smoking. Guilt may elicit reparative action such as being physically active, and it may be what is driving young smokers to get moving.”
Paradoxically, study results suggest teenage male smokers often exhibit a compulsion for exercise as a way to build body mass and gain weight.
“The irony is that the smoking might actually hinder muscle gain,” says O’Loughlin. “Evidence has shown that smoking leads to more visceral fat in the stomach area.”
Investigators report that teenage girls are still more likely to see tobacco as an appetite suppressant. What they often fail to recognize is that going for regular brisk walks can reduce cigarette cravings and help them attain a healthy weight at the same time.
While the proportion of teenaged smokers has declined in the past few decades, this drop leveled off in recent years and is a concern for researchers.
O’Loughlin says that one promising route to smoking prevention and cessation may be through an increase in physical activity, and that public health practitioners should continue to encourage all young people to exercise more often.
“Both the active smokers and active non-smokers in the study did about the same amount of physical activity — so teenagers shouldn’t be discouraged from exercise just because they happen to smoke. If they discover that it helps them reduce cigarette cravings, they are on the right track.”