Running Might Be an Effective Way to Help Smokers Quit
This new quit-smoking technique has a higher success rate.
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Chelsea Gumbley was one of those pack-a-day smokers who knew that she had to quit. “I thought about it every day, every time I had a cigarette,” she says. “I would try not to look at those images of [diseased] lungs when I bought new packs. I thought about how gross it was and I hated how it made me feel. I knew it was bad.”
And yet, like most smokers who try, quitting proved to be a challenge. Gumbley attempted to break the habit at least 10 times—her longest run was two years—but she just couldn’t seem to shake it. One day her mom mentioned Run to Quit, a program at the Running Room, a chain of running shoe stores in Canada. It helped people give up smoking by teaching them how to run a 5K. Gumbley was hesitant. “I was never into running and I did not want to run. I avoided cardio at the gym,” she says. But her now-fiancé, Ryan Denneny, was also a heavy smoker and also keen on quitting, so they decided they would at least try together.
Running Room launched Run to Quit in their Ottawa store in the spring of 2013. Over the course of 10 weeks, participants who were smokers would come into the store to train to run a 5K using Running Room’s tried-and-true method—alternating short bursts of jogging with walking, incrementally reducing the walking until people could run the whole time. What made this clinic different from others that the store offered is that participants would also formulate a plan to quit smoking (with help from reading material and peer advice) and set a quit date. Seventy people did the spring 2013 program, including those who opted for an online alternative.
Soon, the Running Room received funding from the Public Health Agency of Canada and partnered with the Canadian Cancer Society and more stores began to offer the smoking-specific clinics. This year, 100 locations will host them in both the spring and fall, along with three online options. Most notably, the program tweaked its name to Walk or Run to Quit, which helped draw people who might have been initially intimidated by the running aspect. “It’s a learn-to-run program, so we always start out with walkers and didn’t want to make it seem like people had to run the 5K—of course they could walk it,” says Bryan Smith, a Running Room area manager. “It’s more about getting moving and challenging your own fitness level, even if that’s just increasing your walking pace.”
In 2016, when researchers were asked to evaluate Run to Quit, they found it was highly successful at getting people to drop smoking. Their study, published last summer, found that at the 10-week evaluation, 51 percent of participants hadn’t smoked in seven days and during the six-month follow up, nearly 20 percent of people reported that they were still cigarette-free. The latter statistic may not seem like a lot—it’s barely a quarter—but in the world of quitting smoking, it’s a big number.
“When people try to quit on their own, the success rate is about seven percent, so this program does work for many people,” says Carly Priebe, the study's lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia’s school of kinesiology. “And if they don’t quit, they’re at least cutting back. We found that 91 percent of people who stuck with the program reduced their smoking.”
The physical activity aspect of Walk or Run to Quit is definitely one of the magic ingredients. “Exercise does act a little bit like a stimulant,” Priebe says. “Those feel-good endorphins that you release while working out can often replace that similar ‘feel-good’ sensation you were looking for in a cigarette.” Obviously, you don’t need to be a smoker to reap the benefits of endorphins—anyone can get the ‘workout high’—but because when they quit, smokers are giving up that euphoria from cigarettes, it’s almost extra important to find a healthy replacement for that feeling.
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Physical activity could also blunt those hard-to-get-rid-of nicotine cravings and make the withdrawal period more manageable. A recent study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that when mice were pumped with nicotine and ran on an exercise wheel, they had less symptoms of withdrawal. “We know that withdrawal comes with a lot of downs, so exercise may be able to help lift people’s moods, kind of like a chemical balancer,” Priebe says.
Denneny, who finished the program two years ago and hasn’t picked up a cigarette since, says running also became a great distraction tool. “If I wanted to smoke, I would just go for run,” he says. He went on to do the 10K clinic and even became a running coach for Walk or Run to Quit last year. Now, he’s training for a half marathon and running five days a week. “It was definitely difficult at first, but I think running just started a cycle of, it made me feel good and it was something to do, so I think that made it easier to quit permanently,” he says. Gumbley has been smoke-free ever since she finished too and while she isn’t running competitively, she still works out regularly.
Some people don’t quit smoking during the program or pick it back up after a brief hiatus, but Walk or Run to Quit does leave most with a new exercise habit that can curb how often they light up. “Knowing that I have to run tonight means I smoke less,” says Anna Misheal, who smoked about a pack a day before she joined last summer. Now she's down to around eight cigarettes a day and can go more days without smoking any. “Also, I definitely don't want to smoke afterwards because I just did this great thing for my body so smoking is the last thing I want to do when I finish a run.” Research also supports the fact that people who exercise have less of an urge to smoke than those who do a passive activities like sitting.
While exercise certainly played a role in pivoting people away from smoking, the social support aspect seemed to be equally, if not more, helpful. “Running is a huge motivator because you can literally feel your body changing. You’re getting more toned and less out of breath each time you do it,” Gumbley says. “But for me, the people in the group were invaluable. We traded different tips about things like how to deal with cravings and just talked through how we were feeling. You know that people get it because they’re going through the same thing.”
Misheal felt that being around other former or current smokers (even the coaches are ex-smokers) gave Walk or Run to Quit more credibility. “Ex-smokers are the most influential because they’ve been through it before,” she says. “The people who always wanted me to quit just didn’t have that experience. Like, my mom has never been a smoker, my doctor has never been a smoker. One of the great parts of Run to Quit was that we are all sitting there as smokers and it was lovely to know that I wasn't the only smoker in the room. I wasn’t the only one who was having a hard time certain weeks.” Participants are also connected with Canada’s National Quit Smoking Line, where support staff can walk them through strategies for their specific triggers or, as Mishael, says “just [compassionately] listen to me vent about how terrible quitting can feel.”
For many people, being part of a group with a shared goal can really push them to achieve it, which is probably a big reason why people finally quit on the program. “We're influenced all the time by others, even we don’t overtly know it. When you see the crowd take stairs instead of escalator, your body’s response is to do the same and conform to what the group is doing,” Priebe says. If the people around you are quitting smoking, it’s likely that you’ll start to follow their lead.
Smoking cessation programs that bring people together can be especially helpful. A recent review of 13 studies and nearly 4,500 participants found that group therapy is better for helping people quit smoking than self-help. “The group element allows you to push a little harder and be held accountable by others, which means you’re more likely to change,” Priebe says. “Many of the participants had a lot of smokers in their social circles, so I think having a new environment and new social group to surround themselves with was really important. When you’re trying to change and people around you aren’t on the same path as you, it can be difficult to do it.”
Even though she hasn’t quit just yet, Misheal feels more prepared to do so thanks to Walk or Run to Quit. “The program made me feel that quitting is possible and achievable, and that it can take multiple attempts, but that’s OK,” she says. “I’m going to do it.”
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