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How Smoking Affects Exercise

by Theo Wilson

Smoking and Exercise

In an earlier blog, Quit Smoking for a Healthier Lifestyle, we touched briefly on the topic of smoking and exercise. As this is quite a common concern for many smokers, it’s worth looking at it in a little more depth. After all, we know that smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your overall health, whereas physical exercise is one of the best.

In this blog we’ll examine some of the most common questions asked by smokers — or ex-smokers — in regards to exercise. While some effects of smoking are more obvious than others — such as a reduced lung capacity — there are also other effects, both immediate and long-term. We’ll briefly examine these, as well as attempt to provide answers to some common questions, such as: can you smoke and exercise, does exercise cancel out smoking, and does exercise help lungs after smoking?

Effects of Smoking on Your Body

Smoking affects your body detrimentally, in ways both immediate and long-standing. As this was discussed in our last blog, we won’t go into it again in too much detail. However, the CDC offers a brief overview of smoking and respiratory diseases. The key points to note are the presence in commercially available tobacco of a variety of chemicals, chief among these being carbon monoxide and tar. Tar affects the lungs directly, essentially by coating and clogging up vital working parts.

Two of the key parts of the lungs affected by smoking are the bronchiole and the cilia. The bronchiole is a small tube which absorbs oxygen into your lungs. By smoking, and inhaling tar, this tube eventually becomes constricted by tar buildup; this makes it harder to take in sufficient amounts of oxygen, leading to a shortness of breath. The bronchial tube is lined with tiny hairs called cilia.

The essential function of these is to protect your airways by brushing away dust and mucus, keeping the lungs clear. Regular smoking damages and ultimately destroys the cilia. This damage is why smokers often develop a persistent cough, as the cilia are no longer capable of keeping the airways clear of dust and mucus. Carbon monoxide deprives blood cells of oxygen. Thus, your heart has to work harder in order to pump oxygen-deprived blood from your lungs to the rest of your body. This in turn creates swelling in the airways, reducing the amount of oxygen you take into your body.

In addition, long-term carbon monoxide exposure eventually destroys lung tissue. As well as your lungs, every single part of your body — including muscle tissue — is negatively affected by the lack of sufficiently oxygenated blood caused by carbon monoxide exposure. In short, smoking severely hampers proper functioning of the lungs, which also puts additional strain on the heart, as well as preventing proper overall blood flow. With that in mind, let’s look at how this might play out in regards to exercise.

Smoking and Aerobic Exercise

The word aerobic means “relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen.” Aerobic exercise is the more technical name for any form of cardiovascular conditioning, or what many people simply know as “cardio.”

Given the name, and what we know of the damage caused by smoking to the lungs in particular, it’s not all that surprising that a smoking habit puts a massive damper on aerobic exercise.

Activities like running, cycling, and swimming all require your heart and lungs to work full steam to provide your body and muscles with blood and oxygen.

 To put it simply: if smokers are susceptible to an uncomfortable shortness of breath during moderate, everyday activities — just imagine how much worse that would be during strenuous exercise that per definition is meant to elevate breathing and heart rate.

Smoking and Anaerobic Exercise

The flipside to aerobic exercise is anaerobic exercise, meaning “without oxygen.” Whereas aerobic exercise is generally more sustained, anaerobic exercise is done in short, intense bursts — think activities like weight training, calisthenics and sprints.

Whilst the effects of smoking on aerobic exercise may seem obvious, it may be tempting to think that anaerobic exercise gets off scot-free. After all, your breathing isn’t being elevated to the same point as it would in prolonged, aerobic exercise.

However, the intensity of anaerobic exercise is designed to get your heart pumping and your blood flowing — two processes hindered by smoking. Anaerobic exercise improves heart health by making your heart work to pump blood around the body; considering the added strain put on your heart by smoking, you’d be at double risk of making your workouts simultaneously more strenuous and less effective.

And although not as lung-intensive aerobic exercise, it still gets your breath up, which is only going to feel more strenuous if your lungs are coated in tar. For more info on how smoking affects workouts.

Regardless of your preferred form of exercise,we all need post-exercise recovery. This crucial stage, too, is hampered by smoking. In more immediate terms, your breath rate needs to get back to normal — which takes longer for the clogged bronchioles of a smoker. In addition, a lack of oxygen in the blood cells and a slower blood flow means it takes longer for fresh blood to be pumped in muscle tissue, in order to help it recuperate and grow stronger.

Does Exercise Cancel Out Smoking?

Sometimes, we tell ourselves white lies in order to justify what we know to be bad behaviour. For example, you may have told yourself more than once: “it’s okay that I smoke every day, since I balance it out with exercise.” In no uncertain terms, this is false.

There’s a small chance in the short term that a smoker who exercises will be fitter than a non-exercising non-smoker, for a short while. Overall though, the long-term damage from smoking will creep up on you, and it won’t take long for the non-smoker to surpass you in terms of healthiness, exercise or not. Best-case scenario: you’ll be fitter than another smoker that doesn’t exercise, and that’s it. Of course, any amount of exercise is better than none, whether you smoke or not.

What you’ll likely find though, as a smoker, is that it does make exercise much harder than it could be. So, you’re always better off trying to quit. In fact, exercise can be a great method for quitting — as detailed in this post from smokefree.gov.

Next time you’re overcome by the urge to smoke, go for a run, or a bike ride, or do a bunch of push-ups. Not only is it pretty difficult to smoke whilst actually exercising, but you’ll probably find that by the time you’re done, the craving for a cigarette will have passed. The short answer is that exercise will not cancel out smoking. If anything, there’s a risk that the damage done by smoking may cancel out the benefits of exercising.

Does Exercise Help Lungs After Smoking?

In a word: yes. As stated in this post from medical service PlushCare, by exercising, phlegm and mucus caught in the respiratory system become dislodged. This clears out the lungs, promoting easier and steadier breathing. This build-up of phlegm and mucus is a result of damage to the cilia, as detailed above.

In relation to the question of whether exercise can “cancel out” smoking, this adds further weight to that conclusion that it does not. Yes, exercise helps clear out your lungs, but if you continue to smoke, it’s a long uphill battle. However, once you quit smoking and stop causing further damage to the cilia and the lungs more generally, exercise is an effective, healthy way of helping your lungs to clear out.

Can your Lungs Heal After Smoking?

A long-term smoking habit may do irreparable damage to your lungs. Luckily, your lungs are resilient — and remarkable — and the sooner you quit smoking, the sooner they can begin to heal.

Surprisingly, an article in the journal Nature, as detailed in this article from BBC, found that it’s possible for some lung cells to escape damage from smoking. Once a smoker quits, it’s these healthy cells that grow, replacing damaged cells in the lungs.

An article from WebMD offers further advice pertaining to detoxification of the lungs. The key takeaway comes as no surprise: to give your lungs the chance to heal, you need to quit smoking. Beyond that, as we’ve discussed, exercise is hugely beneficial, as is following a healthy diet, rich in fruit and veg — berries and leafy greens in particular.

So, there’s good news. By quitting smoking, you’ll be giving your lungs the chance to heal themselves. You can further assist them with regular exercise and a healthy diet; two lifestyle changes that are easier to maintain when living smoke-free.

Quit Smoking with myCigara

Here at myCigara, we exist to make the UK smoke-free. If you’ve decided that it’s time to quit smoking, we’re here to offer a viable alternative in the form of vaping.

Our longstanding industry experience allows us to offer you custom, expert advice to help get you off cigarettes, and eventually off nicotine entirely.

As well as our aforementioned blog post, Quit Smoking for a Healthier Lifestyle, our Stop Smoking Timeline gives an in-depth explanation of all the benefits you’ll begin to see once you stump out that last cigarette. If this sounds like it could be the right next step for you, we recommend heading over to our New to Vaping page, which gives you a brief introduction to vaping and why we believe it’s a good alternative to smoking.

Additional info, plus links to the public health bodies we partner with, can be found on our Facts & Stats page.

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