AUSTIN, Texas — Exercise helps smokers with a high risk for cessation failure due to emotional distress finally kick the habit, according to psychologists at The University of Texas at Austin.
According to a study in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, between 20 and 33 percent of smokers are considered to have high-anxiety sensitivity — or fear of anxiety and related sensations such as a racing heart, sweating or dizziness — and smoke to cope with stress, making it harder to quit.
“Anxiety and depressive symptoms and syndromes are the most prevalent psychiatric conditions in the general population and are remarkably comorbid with smoking,” said psychology professor Jasper Smits, lead author of the study. “Those with high-anxiety sensitivity experience greater problems with nicotine withdrawal, which is a strong predictor of lapse and subsequent relapse.”
Smits’ research, however, suggests that exercise can reduce anxiety sensitivity and depressive symptoms, doubling the chances of cessation for these adults.
Participants were daily smokers who were screened for anxiety sensitivity and randomly assigned to a 15-week intervention that included thrice weekly exercise (72 individuals) or wellness education (64 individuals) sessions in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy and optional nicotine replacement therapy patches.
Exercise sessions required 25-minutes of “vigorous” work (77 to 88 percent of maximum heart rate), and wellness education sessions included healthy life-style discussions and weekly wellness goals.
Abstinence was assessed through self-reporting and saliva samples. At the end of treatment, 26 percent of those who exercised successfully abstained from smoking, and 12 percent who attended wellness sessions abstained. After six months, 23 percent of the exercise group abstained, and 10 percent of the wellness education group continued to abstain
The National Health Interview Survey found that smoking among U.S. adults without psychiatric disorders decreased steadily between 1997 and 2011 (from 24.1 percent to 18.2 percent), while smoking among adults with some form of psychiatric disorders has remained relatively stable (43.6 percent to 42.1 percent).
“This group is particularly at risk for cessation failure, and our findings suggest that exercise can reduce that risk,” Smits said.
The article, “The efficacy of vigorous-intensity exercise as an aid to smoking cessation in adults with high anxiety sensitivity: A randomized controlled trial,” is available online and in the forthcoming April 2016 print edition of Psychosomatic Medicine.