Walking for just 20 minutes a day can help teenage smokers cut down on their smoking habit.

Teens are even more likely to quit altogether if they participate in a smoking cessation/fitness program and increase the days on which they get at least 30 minutes of exercise.

The finding came from a new study conducted by a team of researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS) and was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Kimberly Horn, EdD, leading author and the Associate Dean for Research at the SPHHS, said:

“This study adds to evidence suggesting that exercise can help teenagers who are trying to quit smoking. Teens who boosted the number of days on which they engaged in at least 20 minutes of exercise, equivalent to a short walk, were more likely than their peers to resist lighting up a cigarette.”

A total of 233 adolescents from 19 high schools in West Virginia participated in the study. West Virginia has one of the highest smoking rates in the country, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 13% of its residents under the age of 18 are smokers.

The volunteers were all daily smokers who took part in other risky behaviors. “It is not unusual for teenage smokers to engage in other unhealthy habits,” Horn explained. “Smoking and physical inactivity – for instance – often go hand in hand.”

On average, the participants smoked half a pack of cigarettes on weekdays and a whole pack a day on the weekends.

A prior report on the same volunteers analyzed 3 types of programs aimed at getting them to stop or cut down on smoking. That study showed that the most effective way to help teens quit was an intensive smoking cessation intervention along with a fitness program.

The new study was set out to determine whether an increase in physical activity would help teens quit smoking, irrespective of the type of intervention.

Similar to the prior investigation, some teens participated in an intensive anti-smoking program combined with a fitness intervention while others only participated in the smoking cessation program or listened to a short anti-smoking lecture.

Results showed that all of the adolescents increased their physical activity to some extent. However, the teens who increased the number of days in which they exercised for 20 minutes were able to considerably reduce the number of cigarettes they smoked.

More research still needs to be conducted on the 20-minute threshold for altering smoking behavior, the authors pointed out.

The study does have some limitations, according to Horn.

She explained:

“We don’t fully understand the clinical relevance of ramping up daily activity to 20 or 30 minutes a day with these teens. But we do know that even modest improvements in exercise may have health benefits. Our study supports the idea that encouraging one healthy behavior can serve to promote another, and it shows that teens, often viewed as resistant to behavior change, can tackle two health behaviors at once.”

Further research needs to confirm the findings and show that they apply to all adolescent smokers, not just the residents of West Virginia.

Although the researchers do not know the exact mechanisms behind the findings, they believe it might be due to the release of endorphins during physical activity that helps teens deal with cravings or reduce the withdrawal symptoms that frequently lead to relapse.

Written by Sarah Glynn