The Truth About Smoking and Exercise: Can They Co-Exist?

Believe it or not, a significant number of people who exercise are also smokers. They are not outliers but the silent majority grappling with balancing their health and trying to win against a bad habit.

In the UK alone, over 6.9 Million adults are cigarette smokers, representing a population that faces specific health risks associated with smoking. Over the recent years, this figure has fluctuated due to the popularity of vaping or e-cigarettes.

That being said, can be fit while also being a smoker? What are the health implications of smoking before or after a workout session? Or could exercise help you to quit smoking finally?

This article will dive deep into the impact of smoking on your wellness, how it affects fitness in the long run, and how you can use exercise to form lasting positive habits.

Having a form of exercise is better than nothing at all. However, the habit of smoking has severe consequences for health and counteracts the positive benefits of working out, making the overall health equation less straightforward.

Smoking before or after working out can undermine the recovery process and put the body under unnecessary stress despite the claim that smoking relieves stress and tension.

More importantly, smoking weakens the natural adaptation of the body to physical exercise, such as improved heart efficiency, increased lung capacity, and enhanced muscle strength, leading to slower progress in fitness level and diminished return on your exercise investment.

Smoking counteracts the many benefits of exercise

Vapes or e-cigarettes have emerged as a trendy alternative to smoking due to their appeal as a ‘lesser evil’ since they have lower nicotine content. However, nicotine is not the sole culprit when it comes to harmful health consequences of smoking.

Vapes create an inhalable aerosol that contains not only a purer form of nicotine but also a cocktail of chemicals and flavoring agents. When heated, these compounds undergo chemical transformations, leading to the formation of potentially harmful compounds that can cause cancers.

In addition, recent studies have revealed the presence of toxic metals like lead and cadmium in e-cigarette vapors, which originate from the heating elements inside these devices. In essence, it is actually the smoke or vapor that can harm the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.

Less harmful doesn’t mean ‘safe’

It’s well established that smoking can increase the risk of chronic heart and lung diseases and even some types of cancers. In fitness, smokers generally have less endurance, poorer athletic performance, and are more prone to injuries.

When you smoke, the heart, lungs, and muscles receive less oxygen. Carbon monoxide from smoke easily binds to hemoglobin. It competes with oxygen for its spot in the blood, resulting in more hemoglobin-carrying carbon monoxide than oxygen circulating in the body.

Furthermore, nicotine from smoke triggers the release of adrenaline, which causes the heart to beat faster and raises blood pressure. This increases your body’s demand for oxygen. At the same time, its supply is being cut off by carbon monoxide, resulting in significant stress on the cardiovascular system and opening the potential for long-term health complications.

Due to reduced oxygen availability, muscles may resort to anaerobic (without oxygen) functions to generate energy and supply your demands during physical activities. However, this process is less efficient and leads to the accumulation of lactic acid, which can cause muscle soreness and fatigue.

The toxins in cigarette smoke can trigger inflammatory responses and oxidative stress in the body, leading to a compromised immune response. If inflammation is uncontrolled, it can become chronic, resulting in persistent pain, muscle stiffness, and soreness, which can significantly affect quality of life.

In addition, the oxidative stress caused by smoking can damage muscle cells and can contribute to muscle fatigue and a delayed recovery process.

Smoking leads to the constriction and hardening (atherosclerosis) of blood vessels, impeding blood flow to various organs, including muscle tissues. Reduced blood flow means that less oxygen and nutrients reach the muscles, which can result in muscle fatigue and weakness.

Even worse, hardening of blood vessel walls can lead to stroke and heart attack if left unchecked. In extreme cases, reduced blood flow can be severely compromised and starve the blood supply to the limbs, leading to tissue necrosis or cell death.

Due to its stimulating effect and consequent release of adrenaline, smoking can actually make you lift heavier loads for a short time. However, in terms of your long-term gains in the gym, smoking can interfere with vital proteins that are responsible for cell repair and growth.

A 2020 research suggests that smoking can suppress genes that maintain muscle mass. In addition, smoking can cause a plummet in testosterone levels and increase cortisol or stress hormones, which can worsen the normal catabolic process (muscle breakdown).

Although nicotine has appetite suppression effects, its negative impact on metabolism can actually lead to weight gain. People who smoke are more likely to consume 350-575 more calories daily than non-smokers, resulting in unhealthy weight gain and body fat accumulation. Studies have shown that smokers have a higher tendency to have a central pattern of body fat distribution— resulting in an apple-shaped body type where fat is more concentrated in the abdomen.

Share it

While it is true that exercise is critical in improving health, it is a myth that exercise can offset the negative effects of smoking. Even if you optimize your diet and have a healthy exercise routine, smoking will still put you at risk of having chronic diseases, especially cancer.

Smoking can derail your progress in the gym

If smoking becomes part of your routine, it becomes a habit— an automatic behavior that is hard to get rid of. The brain is designed to conserve energy and function efficiently.

Unfortunately, habits require less mental energy and less mental resistance, and that’s why our brain prefers doing habitual activities to learning new things, which demands more energy.

Just like any other habit, smoking is tied to a trigger or cue. For example, many smokers would automatically feel the need to smoke after eating lunch, before starting work, or whenever they feel stressed.

Others become attached to smoking before heading to the gym because inhaling smoke provides a rush of adrenaline, which triggers the body to feel pleasure and increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. This gives the illusion of being ‘psyched up’ or ‘pumped up’ before working out.

Moreover, nicotine is a highly addictive substance that binds to brain receptors, which causes the release of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine. This ‘feel-good hormone’ allows smokers to instantly feel an artificial sense of pleasure or reward. Even worse, the brain quickly adapts to these frequent dopamine surges, leading to a need for increasing amounts of nicotine to achieve the same pleasurable effect— resulting in dependency and smoking addiction.

Smoking is a habit. Unlearning a habit requires a rewiring of neural pathways

Like any habit, smoking stems from a loop of cue, routine, and reward, which, over time, becomes etched into the neural pathways, making smoking a default response. However, quitting smoking is not far from impossible, and exercising can be the greatest piece in your toolbox.

If you form a habit of smoking, it becomes wired in your brain. This means that certain triggers can make you crave a puff or two. However, if you can consciously and consistently replace your response to triggers, you can rewire your brain and unlearn the habit of smoking. It’s all about repetition. Do a thing for a long time until it becomes automatic.

When you crave a puff, go for a quick jog or a session of squats and jumping jacks. Performing movement snacks can be an effective way to divert your mind and harness the benefits of exercise more intentionally.

Running or High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can allow the brain to release different neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins that are crucial for mood regulation and the reward system.

Endorphins are the body’s natural mood lifters, providing a mental reward similar to dopamine shots you receive from nicotine. It gives you a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and happiness, making exercise a naturally rewarding alternative.

Here’s a women’s plan to help improve your energy levels:

And for men:

Unlike short-term pleasure from smoking, exercise can promote sustained and balanced mood enhancement.

Working out doesn’t cause a sudden crash of dopamine after peaking in the brain, leading to long-term improvements in neurochemical balance and a healthy way of coping with withdrawal symptoms and mood fluctuation during the cessation process.

The ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters from exercising can help combat anxiety and depression and minimize stress levels. In fact, exercise is a prescription medicine for people struggling with mental health conditions.

More importantly, managing stress levels and becoming more mentally resilient can help eliminate stress as a trigger to smoking.

Smoking is hard to quit but not impossible. Exercise could be your greatest ally!

Smoking and exercise are a counterintuitive combination. Smoking decreases the healthy impact of exercise, which can derail your progress in the gym and can lead to long-term health complications. However, you can use exercise to unlearn the habit of smoking and create a lasting impact on your health and fitness.

Share it
Bert Bauzon is a licensed physiotherapist specializing in spinal care and sports rehabilitation. He writes articles and books about exercise science and health care.

Weekly knowledge exclusively for people who want to improve their health, fitness and mindset.

First Name