The addition of a physical activity component to teen smoking cessation programs increased success rates by 48% during a six-month period, data from a recent Pediatrics study indicate.

Exercise may help ease cigarette cravings and withdrawal symptoms, some researchers have suggested, but results from previous studies exploring the topic have been mixed.

To study whether exercising can help teen smokers quit, Kimberly Horn, EdD, of the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, and colleagues, enrolled 233 smokers aged 14 to 19 years from 19 local high schools.

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Students were randomly assigned to one of three interventions: a one-time 15-minute counseling session (n=63), a once-weekly group session using the evidence-based “Not on Tobacco” (NOT) teen smoking cessation program (n=90); the same NOT program with five additional minutes of encouragement to engage in physical activity, along with a weekly exercise log and pedometer to record daily steps (n=80). Both NOT intervention groups with and without and exercise component lasted for 10 weeks.

At baseline, nearly all teens smoked daily, reporting that they smoked an average half a pack per day on weekdays and nearly a pack a day on weekends.

Overall, the exercise intervention group demonstrated only a slight trend towards significant improvement in quit rates compared with the intervention group without exercise (P=0.066).

However, students that participated in either intervention, with our without exercise, had significantly higher cessation rates at 6 months compared with those who received only brief counseling.

Student-reported quit rates were 15.87% among those in the brief counseling group vs. 21.11% in the intervention group without exercise (P=0.202) and 31.25% in the exercise intervention group (P=0.013).

Adding exercise was most beneficial for boys, who were two-fold more likely to be tobacco-free at six months compared with boys in the intervention group that did not encourage exercise (36.84% vs. 18.42%, P=0.033).

Among girls, adding an exercise component did not seem to effect outcomes. Either smoking cessation intervention improved three-month quit rates compared with brief counseling, but these benefits did not last past six months, the researchers found.

“It is possible that the physical activity adjunct, rather than physical activity itself, was more culturally suitable for boys than for girls,” the researchers wrote.

Study findings may not be generalizable to all populations, the researchers warned, as West Virginia has the highest teen smoking and the lowest physical activity rates in the United States. Other study limitations include small sample size, which limited the ability to control for clustering.

“We must replicate the study with diverse groups of teens,” the researchers wrote.

Horn K et al. Pediatrics. 2011; doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-2599.