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4 Reasons to Exercise While Quitting Smoking

In addition to boosting heart health, exercise may help tobacco users quit. February is American Heart Month, a time to encourage individuals to think about their cardiovascular health.

by Schuyler Griffin, LCSWA, UNC Tobacco Treatment Program

Photo shows one inidividual in a wheelchair and one individual on a floor mat in an exercise class
Regular exercise can help improve heart health and support quitting tobacco use.

Regular exercise and quitting tobacco use are two top recommendations for improving heart health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When it comes to quitting smoking, there are several evidence-based interventions providers discuss daily with patients, but what about exercise? Can clinicians recommend exercise as an aid to tobacco cessation?

Remember: physical activity does not need to include a gym or equipment. It can be as accessible as walking or a seated exercise.

Think about conversations you’ve had with patients surrounding tobacco cessation. You’ve probably heard many reasons why they aren’t ready to quit or have been unsuccessful. Some reasons I hear a lot are stress, withdrawal symptoms (such as cravings), and concerns about weight gain. One way to combat all these concerns is exercise. Below I’ve highlighted some key benefits of exercise in helping patients quit tobacco and ideas for applying them in your practice. Remember to recommend exercise in addition to standard-of-care tobacco cessation interventions—FDA-approved cessation medications plus behavioral therapy. Here are 4 reasons to exercise while quitting smoking:

1. Lower Cravings

Physical activity, such as walking, can assist in distracting or lowering tobacco cravings. Typically, cravings last 5 to 10 minutes or less. Create a plan that is specific to the patient you’re working with to add in an exercise activity to push through the craving. This could be as simple as going for a walk around the office building, a round of jumping jacks, or a quick set of lunges and squats. It is important to create a physical activity plan that is attainable and personalized to each patient.


2. Stress Relief

Photo shows three friends jogging.
Exercise can provide stress relief, which may lead to decreased tobacco use.

I hear from many patients that stress continues the cycle of smoking as they may not have additional outlets for stress. Adding exercise can aid patients in relieving stress, which may lead to less tobacco use. Nicotine may cause patients to feel less stressed right after use due to its effects on the brain but will lead to overall worsening stress levels due to nicotine withdrawal symptoms, including anxiousness. This is where exercise can help. Exercise offers stress relief while also boosting energy in the long run. When you replace smoking with a new habit such as walking or yoga, you break the cycle and your brain’s dependence on nicotine for stress relief.


3. Combating Weight Gain

Some patients are concerned about gaining weight after they quit smoking, as nicotine is an appetite suppressant. On average some patients gain around 10 pounds after the first year of quitting tobacco. It is important to support and understand patients’ concerns while also informing them of the health benefits of tobacco cessation vs. the consequences of gaining additional weight. Education around healthy snacks, coping skills, and physical activity can lower patients’ concerns. If the patient normally takes a smoke break at lunchtime, they could go for a walk during this time instead. If boredom is a trigger for patients, they may try 10 minutes of yoga or stretching to busy their minds and body.


4. Boosting Cardiovascular Health

The patients I see usually list general health or a new diagnosis as a main motivator for tobacco cessation. Highlighting the cardiovascular benefits of both quitting smoking and physical activity and explaining that they are intertwined may help patients with their quit attempt. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. Below are a few benefits of each to highlight for patients:

Health Benefits of Physical Activity for Adults graphic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Health Benefits of Physical Activity for Adults (CDC). Double click to zoom.

Cardiovascular Benefits of Quitting Smoking:

  • 20 minutes after quitting, blood pressure drops and heart rate normalizes.

  • 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood normalizes, allowing more oxygen to get to vital organs, such as the heart and brain.

  • In 24 hours, your heart attack risk decreases.

  • Within 1 year, the risk of developing coronary artery disease is cut in half.

For more details on the impact of quitting tobacco on heart health, check out our previous TTS Tips blog post here.


Hopefully the information above will encourage you create a tobacco cessation treatment plan that includes exercise. Remember: physical activity does not need to include a gym or equipment. It can be as accessible as walking or a seated exercise. Meet your patients where they are and help them reach their goals.


If you are interested in learning more about behavioral methods to help support tobacco cessation, check out our free CE activity Introduction to Behavioral and Mindfulness Interventions for Tobacco Treatment. Ready for a deeper dive into behavioral treatment? Sign up for our upcoming virtual Intensive Behavioral Health Approaches to Tobacco Treatment CE Short Course by visiting


Schuyler Griffin is an Associate level Licensed Clinical Social Worker with the UNC Tobacco Treatment Program. Schuyler provides evidenced-based tobacco cessation interventions to patients at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital. Schuyler’s interests include research, motivational interviewing, mindfulness, strength-based approaches, and partnering with patients to meet their goals.

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