Aims and design Moderate-intensity exercise has been shown to reduce common smoking withdrawal symptoms and desire to smoke in acutely abstinent smokers. The aim of the present study was to determine if this was caused by distraction. A secondary aim was to determine whether exercise-related changes in affect were related to a reduction in symptoms.
Methods Forty ‘sedentary’ participants who had smoked at least 10 or more cigarettes per day for at least 3 years were assigned randomly to one of two groups. They completed either 10 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on a stationary bicycle ergometer or 10 minutes of a cognitive distraction task (paced visual serial addition task, PVSAT) after 11–15 hours of smoking abstinence. Participants rated smoking withdrawal symptoms and desire to smoke using standard scales at 10, 5 and 0 minutes before the experimental intervention, then at 5 and 10 minutes after the start of the intervention and 5 and 10 minutes after its completion.
Findings Significant group × time interactions were observed for ratings of desire to smoke and several withdrawal symptoms (irritability, depression, restlessness, difficulty concentrating and stress). There was a reduction in ratings during and immediately following exercise that was not observed with cognitive distraction. Also it was found the effects were not mediated by changes in affect observed in the exercise condition.
Conclusions A brief bout of moderate-intensity exercise can lead to a rapid reduction in desire to smoke and withdrawal discomfort, which is not due to the distracting effect of exercise or the effects of mood. These findings support recommendations to smokers to use exercise as a means of helping cope with the difficulties encountered when they try to stop.