Study shows exercise may help smokers quit by lowering anxiety sensitivity

Hannah Daniel

Exercise may help individuals with high anxiety sensitivity quit smoking, according to a study conducted by a research team that included UT psychologists.

Individuals with high anxiety sensitivity experience a heightened fear of sensations associated with anxiety such as sweating, heart racing and shortness of breath. Mark Powers, a psychology research associate professor involved in the study, said there is a connection between this sensitivity and increased smoking habits because smoking may help individuals cope with their symptoms.

“People with anxiety disorders smoke more and have more difficulty quitting,” Powers said in an email. “For example, roughly 20 percent of the general population smokes but approximately 40 percent of people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder smoke.”

According to clinical psychology graduate student Michelle Davis, who was part of the research team, people who experience high anxiety sensitivity may be prone to increased difficulty with successful smoking cessation, because nicotine withdrawal can trigger the same physical sensations as those experienced in response to anxiety.

In the study, adult smokers with elevated anxiety sensitivity received 15 weeks of standard treatment — cognitive behavioral therapy combined with nicotine replacement therapy — for smoking cessation. Additionally, the participants were randomly assigned to simultaneously receive 15 weeks of either exercise or wellness education thrice weekly.

“We had them engage in vigorous intensity exercise on a treadmill,” psychology professor Jasper Smits said. “When you exercise like that, you obviously get a lot of the symptoms of anxiety. You get difficulty breathing, you get heart racing, you get sweating, so it’s a nice way to get exposure to these symptoms and start feeling safe around them.”

Participant success in abstaining from smoking was assessed throughout the 15 weeks and a three-month follow-up period by self-reporting and saliva samples.

The results of the study indicated that after six months, 23 percent of the exercise group continued to abstain from smoking, compared to only 10 percent of the wellness education group. Analysis of the data shows that the difference in the abstinence rates between the two groups is statistically significant.

In light of the apparent benefits of exercise in smoking cessation, Davis said individuals with high anxiety who intend to quit might want to consider implementing an exercise routine to increase their chances of success.

“Since this is the first study to examine this specialized treatment, the effects will need to be replicated to be established as useful, but the great thing about exercise is that there are no negative side effects,” Davis said.