Congrats! You finally kicked the smoking habit. Now it’s time to get back to a fitness routine and focus on your health. Good choice. Studies show that even ten minutes of moderate intensity exercise can decrease the anxiety and cravings that follow quitting smoking. According to Dr. David Greuner of NYC Surgical Associates, exercise can be helpful and effective in reducing cravings and stress. But you may be finding it harder to exercise than you expected. You feel winded a lot sooner in your workouts than before. You quit and suddenly you’re gaining weight. Whatever the challenge, it’s possible to overcome it—you just have to get to the root of the issue.
Many people cope with the stress of quitting smoking by indulging in other vices. Dr. Sean McCaffrey, D.C., I.H.S., L.D.H.S. and founder of McCaffrey Health Clinic, believes in order to prevent this, it’s important to figure out the emotional component of why you started smoking in the first place. “It’s all about the stress. You have to go looking for the cause of that. What was the start? Are you having emotional problems? Working really hard? You have to go back to that core link,” he says.
Everyone has different experiences with exercising after quitting. So, let’s break it down a bit more. Read on to learn more about how smoking may have affected your body and how you can ease back into fitness after quitting smoking.
How Smoking Affects the Body
It’s a well-known fact that smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular issues. It can raise your blood pressure and cause lung cancer. According to Dr. Greuner, smoking can also create an excess of carbon monoxide. “This forces the heart to work harder and faster at all times. It increases the risk of conditions such as coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, peripheral vascular disease and cerebrovascular disease,” he says.
Smoking can also have detrimental effects on your stomach, bones, skin, teeth, and throat. It can weaken the muscles controlling your esophagus, which connects your mouth and stomach. This can cause stomach cancer or an ulcer, Dr. Greuner says. Smoking can also weaken your bones and may eventually cause osteoporosis.
However, Dr. Greuner says that smoking is actually most dangerous to your throat. “Cigarette smoke can remain on the outer layer [of your throat] for long periods of time and is responsible for a vast majority of throat diseases,” he says. “There are so many chemicals in a cigarette that when the throat experiences them, there can be consequences, such as cancer, voice change, or long-lasting irritation.”
In terms of your physical fitness, there are many other changes that directly affect our blood and oxygen flow. “Smoking narrows the blood vessels that spread oxygen throughout your body, as well as makes your blood thicker,” Dr. Greuner says. Though all of the body is affected by smoking, the lungs are one of the organs most directly affected.
Lung Capacity After Quitting Smoking
You might be really eager to get back to your fitness routine. But, as with starting any workout routine, it’s important to start slow and to pace yourself. Remember, your lungs are not the same as they were before you took up smoking. So, your lung capacity may also be different.
“Smoking can decrease lung capacity, meaning that the amount of oxygen your lungs are able to hold is now less,” says Dr. Greuner. “Due to its effect on blood vessels, smoking makes distributing oxygen throughout the body more difficult. As less oxygen is flowing throughout your body, your lungs will adjust and only hold what is needed or used. Over time, breathing will become more strenuous.”
According to Dr. McCaffrey, the lungs’ function is to eliminate, and, in quitting smoking, you have already helped them function better. Similarly, multiple studies have pointed to the undeniable benefits that quitting smoking has on lung function. A study done by the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine compared two groups of people. One group had chosen to quit smoking, while the other had not. The study found that six weeks after quitting, lung function had improved within the group that had chosen to quit. The study concluded that quitting smoking played a significant role in those individuals suffering from asthma. Another study conducted looked at people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It found that quitting smoking partially reversed the inflammation in airways caused by cigarette smoke.
“The lungs bring oxygen in, and you’re going to get more of it now that you quit smoking because you’re not blocking receptors” Dr. McCaffrey explains. Moreover, he adds, regular exercise helps to strengthen your lungs, as it allows them to bring more oxygen into the body and remove waste.
Pay attention to your breath.
It’s also important to pay attention to your breath while you exercise. The deeper your inhale, the better your lung function. “Think of the lung as a very big balloon. Most people, especially smokers, under a lot of stress—emotionally and physically—tend to be chest breathers,” says Dr. McCaffrey. “Imagine dividing the balloon into 20 percent parts so you’ve got five of them. Chest breathers tend to breathe from the upper 20 percent of the lung,” he says. Diaphragmatic breathing, or using all of your lung when you inhale and exhale, helps the lungs eliminate chemicals from cigarette smoke.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, place one heart on your chest and the other right below your rib cage. As you inhale, you should feel your diaphragm fill with air, moving the hand under your rib cage out as it does so. Inhale as fully and deeply as you can. Exhale slowly. You will start to feel your hand under the rib cage move back down as your diaphragm releases the inhale. Repeat this breathing technique for five to ten minutes a few times a day.
Following a Fitness Plan
There isn’t a single plan that will work for everyone. Each individual’s journey is different. Dr. McCaffrey recommends starting with learning your limits. “A good starting point is to test overall health. How much damage is there? What’s the lung capacity? Can you walk up a flight of stairs?” he says.
Dr. Greuner echoes the sentiment, stating that though it’s not necessary, it’s a smart idea to get evaluated by your doctor to determine if your body is healthy enough to engage in vigorous activity. Once you’ve gaged how much strenuous activity your body can handle, don’t hesitate to jump back on the saddle. “There is no waiting period between quitting smoking and exercising,” Dr. Greuner says. “In fact, if smoking is something one struggles with, exercising can help with lung capacity and ability to absorb oxygen.”
Start off slow.
While you get back into exercise, remember to start off slow. If you try to do too much too fast, your risk of injury increases. “You’re going to have all kinds of problems and issues because the body is not used to being so active,” Dr. McCaffrey says. It’s important to remember that smoking affects the whole body, not just the lungs, he adds.
Start with walking. According to Dr. McCaffrey, performing cardio for approximately ten minutes, two to three times a day would be more efficient than trying to tackle a whole half-hour or hour of exercise. “The goal is to break it up. A study that came out of University Medical Center found it much more effective to do three ten-minute exercises a day than it would be to do one long one. Use that as your bar and start at the beginning. Work your way up from those ten-minute increments in exercises.”
The type of cardio doesn’t matter.
Dr. Greuner agrees that cardio plays a huge role in recovery for ex-smokers. He says that any type of cardio can make a difference, as long as it’s high enough intensity that the person can break a sweat. “Cardio is very important to help yourself recover from smoking over a long period of time. You should do cardio about 30 minutes for four to five days, but it doesn’t always have to be high-intensity. While it’s good to push yourself past your comfort zone, you want to be careful to avoid injury since your body is going to have to work twice as hard to keep up,” he says.
Overall, ex-smokers should gradually ease back into exercise. Start off slow, working out in ten-minute increments for a total of 30 minutes four to five times a week. While you do want to break a sweat, make sure you don’t overexert yourself. Remember to pay attention to your body and go at your own pace.
Exercise to Reduce Weight Gain
Many ex-smokers often complain of weight gain after quitting smoking. According to Dr. McCaffrey, the weight gain isn’t a direct side effect of quitting. “The weight gain comes not so much from the cessation of smoking. It comes in because smoking creates an almost habitual hand-to-mouth reflex,” he says. “Now all of the a sudden you’ve quit smoking, but you still have this habit.” Many former smokers look for vices to fill the void. “A lot of times [quitters] turn to something that they’re eating or something that they’re bringing into their diet,” he says. By accident, they literally replace one addiction with another.”
Dr. Greuner agrees, stating that on average ex-smokers can gain five to ten pounds after deciding to quit. If you’ve been exercising but you’re not seeing the weight loss results you want—or you’re experiencing weight gain—look at your diet. Take note of your dietary habits from day-to-day and look for areas where you may be filling your hand-to-mouth habit with food. Afterall, according to Dr. McCaffrey, “You can’t outrun a bad diet.”
Remember to be patient with yourself.
At the end of the day, remember that, as with most things, it will take time for your body to get stronger. You already started the recovery process by simply quitting. “The body recovers as soon as 20 minutes within the last cigarette and gets healthier each passing day without smoking,” says Dr. Greuner. “For example, one day after not smoking your risk of a heart attack goes down since good cholesterol is no longer being damaged, your blood pressure decreases, and oxygen levels rise. Ten years after quitting, one’s chances of lung cancer, as well as other diseases, are reduced by almost half.”
Adding a fitness regimen can speed up recovery and help increase lung capacity and oxygen flow. If it helps, you can look at it month-by-month. “It takes about 90 days to change,” Dr. McCaffrey says. “It takes a year for your body to accept that change as permanent.”
So, don’t lose hope just yet. Be patient and listen to your body. As always, be sure to check in with your healthcare provider before starting any kind of fitness routine after quitting smoking.