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Looking at 19 past clinical trials, researchers found that a bout of exercise generally helped hopeful quitters tamp down their nicotine cravings. Whether that all translates into a greater chance of quitting, though, is unclear.
Still, the researchers say that if getting on your bike helps you avoid lighting up, do it.
“Certainly, exercise seems to have temporary benefits, and as such can be strongly recommended,” Adrian A. Taylor, a professor of exercise and health psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK, said in an email.
For its study, published in the journal Addiction, Taylor’s team combined the results from small clinical trials that tested the immediate effects of exercise on smokers’ cigarette cravings.
Smokers were randomly assigned to either exercise – most often, brisk walking or biking – or some kind of “passive” activity, like watching a video or just sitting quietly.
Overall, Taylor’s team found, people said they had less desire to smoke after working out than they did before.
“After exercise, smokers reported about one-third lower cravings compared with being passive,” Taylor said.
Exactly why is not clear. But one possibility, Taylor said, is that exercise serves as a distraction. Being active might also boost people’s mood, so that they do not feel as great a need to feel better by smoking, Taylor noted.
None of the smokers in these studies was in a quit program or using nicotine replacement products, like gums or patches. Since nicotine replacement therapy curbs cravings, Taylor noted, exercise might have less of an effect for smokers who are using those products, or possibly the other medications used for smoking cessation.