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Increased Exercise Could Help Teen Smokers Cut Back, Study Finds

Can't kick the craving for a cigarette? Physical activity could help.

Teenage smokers who increased the number of days they took part in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity for at least 20 minutes were significantly more likely to reduce their daily number of cigarettes, according to a study published online today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study looked at 233 teenagers in West Virginia (ages 14 to 19) between 2006 and 2009 who reported smoking at least one cigarette in the past 30 days. High schools were randomly selected, then randomly assigned to one of three groups: Brief Intervention (10-15 minutes of advice about the harmful effects of smoking at the start of the study); Not-On-Tobacco (N-O-T; the American Lung Association's voluntary program to help teens stop smoking), or N-O-T with a physical-activity component (N-O-T+FIT).

Both males and females in the N-O-T+FIT group significantly increased the number of days in which they exercised for 20, 30, or 60 minutes, the study found. At the start of the study, 5.1 percent of the youths in the N-O-T+FIT group reported exercising for 20 minutes per day on each of the past seven days; 8.8 percent reported getting 30 minutes of physical activity on each of the past seven days; and 10.13 percent exercised 60 minutes per day on each of the past seven days.

Three months later, 31.9 percent of the teens in the N-O-T+FIT group reported exercising for 20 minutes on each of the past seven days; 27.7 reported exercising for 30 minutes each of the past seven days; and 23.4 percent reported 60 minutes of physical activity for each of the past seven days.

Teens in all three groups who increased the number of days that they had at least 20 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were significantly more likely to reduce their total number of daily cigarettes. The teenagers in the N-O-T+FIT group who increased the number of days in which they exercised for 20 minutes were the most likely to reduce their cigarette usage.

Additionally, teenagers in the N-O-T+FIT group who increased the number of days in which they exercised 30 minutes were more likely to quit smoking entirely than those who similarly increased their physical activity in the other two groups, the study found. In all three groups, the 30 minutes of physical activity per day didn't need to qualify as moderate-to-vigorous exercise to be counted.

"We don't fully understand the clinical relevance of ramping up daily activity to 20 or 30 minutes a day with these teens," said lead author Kimberly Horn, the associate dean for research at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services, in a statement. "But we do know that even modest improvements in exercise may have health benefits. Our study supports the idea that encouraging one healthy behavior can serve to promote another, and it shows that teens, often viewed as resistant to behavior change, can tackle two health behaviors at once."

I spoke with Horn on Monday to discuss both this particular study and future research plans. She said that while a smoking-cessation program coupled with physical activity seems to be ideal in terms of getting teens to reduce the number of cigarettes they smoke, it's not always possible. In the absence of a cessation program, encouraging teenage smokers to increase their physical activity may at least help them cut back on their daily number of cigarettes, Horn suggested.

Horn and her colleagues acknowledged in the study that further research is necessary to confirm whether these findings apply to all youths, instead of just West Virginia teenagers. During our interview, Horn also said that she would like to drill down further to better understand the types of physical activity kids engage in. This could help determine the threshold at which physical activity affects smoking behavior, she suggested.

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