Exercise helps teens quit smoking

Encouraging teenage smokers not only to quit, but to get physically active may boost their odds of kicking the habit, a new study suggests.

The study, reported online September 19 in Paediatrics, looked at the effects of adding exercise advice to a teen-focused smoking cessation programme.

Not On Tobacco (NOT) is the American Lung Association's quit program geared specifically for high school students. It's available in public schools across the US, and studies have found that the average quit rate is about 21%.

The idea for the new study came partly from the fact that some research in adults suggests exercise can help smokers quit – possibly by easing withdrawal symptoms or taking the edge off of cigarette cravings.

Exercise low, smoking high

And in West Virginia, where the study was done, smoking rates are high, while exercise rates are low, said lead researcher Kimberly Horn, of the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown.

"We felt like exercise might be important for these kids, and that the effects of NOT could be boosted," Horn told Reuters Health in an interview.

To study the question, Horn's team randomly assigned 19 high schools to offer the standard cessation programme, the programme plus exercise advice or a "brief intervention" in which teen smokers had one session with a programme facilitator. NOT facilitators are usually teachers, coaches or guidance counsellors who've trained with the programme.

In all, 233 students took part in one of the three programmes.

More boys quit smoking on NOT programme

The standard NOT programme offers 10 weekly small-group sessions, in which a facilitator helps kids figure out why they smoke and find ways to kick the habit.

Teens in the exercise-added version also got advice on exercise – and a pedometer to keep track of their daily activity levels.

After six months, the NOT-plus-exercise group had the highest self-reported quit rate, at 31%. That compared with 21% in the standard programme and just under 16% in the brief-intervention group.

When Horn's team looked more closely at the data, the added exercise seemed to help boys only.

Among boys in that version of the programme, 37% had quit by the six-month mark, versus only about 18% in the standard programme. Girls' quit rates, however, were similar in both groups – at 26% and 23%, respectively.

Girls have greater fitness barriers

The reasons for the gender gap are not clear, according to Horn. "We're a little puzzled by it," she said.

In general, Horn noted, it's known that girls' exercise levels drop in the teen years, whereas boys are more likely to stay active to some degree. "It may be that the girls had greater fitness barriers to get around," Horn said.

This study did not actually measure the students' exercise levels, so it's not clear how changes in physical activity correlate with quitting success.

Exercise has extra health benefits

In the future, Horn said, the researchers will look at whether the programme really did boost kids' activity levels, and whether the type of exercise matters when it comes to quitting smoking.

What's encouraging, according to Horn, is that the exercise portion is easy to add to the existing NOT programme. "It's just a modest amount of encouragement to exercise from the facilitator. And we found that even that small dose might have very important effects."

The hope, Horn said, is that even after kids quit smoking, they'll keep exercising and reap those extra health benefits as well.

(Reuters Health, September 2011) 

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