Exercise may help with smoking cessation

Lucy Cai

A UT-Austin study is currently looking at ways to help people quit smoking through an integrated exercise intervention.

The intervention consists of 15 weeks of aerobic exercise, with the quitting attempt scheduled for the sixth week of the program. There are two phases to the study, with the first phase leading up to the quit date and the second phase consisting of relapse prevention, according to Zane Freeman, the project coordinator for the study.

Freeman says that this study is building off his laboratory’s past work.

“Previously we did a study where people would come into our lab and do exercise paired with traditional smoking therapy,” he said. “We found that this sort of comprehensive intervention can be helpful for people to quit smoking and maintain abstinence. And we’re now looking at if we can integrate this into a community-based program at the YMCA in Austin.”

The program encourages people to build a regular routine of exercise, Freeman said.

“By having them come to the gym each week and meet with the trainer, they’re sort of able to get this consistent routine going,” Freeman said. “The idea is that having someone build a regular exercise routine really gets them focusing on their health and the idea that they want to become a healthier person.”

Having this sense of control over their health, or self-efficacy, can motivate people to quit smoking, said Jacqueline Evans, a UT psychology lecturer.

“One very powerful predictor of success in quitting smoking is a strong desire to,” Evans said. “So one key consideration is helping people desire to quit smoking. You could think about a therapy technique that would improve people’s sense of self-efficacy, (which is) ‘Do you feel like you can quit smoking?’ If we provide you with a lot of support and the resources you need, you might feel like you’re more empowered and have more control over the smoking behavior.”

Similarly, Freeman’s program combines exercise with other interventions to maximize smoking cessation success.

“One thing that is important to note is that it’s not really exercise alone, but (it’s) this comprehensive intervention using counseling, nicotine replacement, with exercise on top of it,” Freeman said.

Those who are especially sensitive to stress may be uniquely impacted by this intervention, according to Freeman.

“We’re working specifically with a population of anxious individuals, people who don’t deal with their stress and anxiety very well and the symptoms that go along with it,” Freeman said.

Stress can serve as a trigger for smoking, but introducing exercise into the equation may disrupt this relationship and assist with efforts to quit. More specifically, there is a physiological basis behind exercise and stress that can be applied to help with smoking cessation, according to Evans.

“Exercise would have huge benefits for helping people cope with stress effectively,” she said. “It’s one of the surest way to overcome acute stress. As our stress hormone increases due to an acute stressor that we’re experiencing in our mind, our body releases a lot of cortisol, a stress hormone.”

Cortisol, however, is also implicated in exercise, said Evans.

“What’s great about exercise is that cortisol is also involved in metabolizing energy that prepares you for large movement,” Evans said. “So, exercise (also) demands an increase in cortisol. Once you’re done exercising, your body can help trick your brain into stopping the secretion of cortisol because it’s no longer needed for exercise.”

Through this manner of negative feedback, exercise can reduce the physiological response, or cortisol secretion, to a psychological stressor. That way, exercise can used to manage a significant potential trigger for smoking, said Evans.

If Freeman and his team find that this program has benefits for smoking cessation, this intervention could be implemented more widely.

“The goal is to see if it’s feasible to have a program like this at the YMCA,” Freeman said. “If we get the results we’re looking for, then the YMCA might adopt this program. We might see more prescriptions from doctors and therapists for exercise for smoking cessation.”