Search the sporting good shops. There’s no magic pill to improve your agility on the tennis court. There are no elixirs that guarantee a three-minute drop in your 5K time. The best energy drinks on the shelves don’t promise to increase your energy, improve your endurance, enhance your sense of well-being, and virtually ensure a longer, happier life.
Want all of the above? Stop smoking.
The American Cancer Society celebrates its 37th annual Great American Smokeout Nov. 15 by encouraging smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit, or to plan in advance and quit smoking that day. Quitting, just for one day, reflects an important step towards a healthier life, and one that can lead to reducing cancer risk, the ACS website stated.
But what does this have to do with recreation? How could this apply to athletes and exercise?
“Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the U.S., yet about 43.8 million Americans still smoke cigarettes,” the ACS site noted. That’s nearly one out of every five of us, and you can bet nearly every member of that smoking population either tries to exercise regularly or could benefit from regular physical activity.
While kicking the habit certainly enhances our exercise, however, experts now contend that exercise repays the favor by making quitting easier.
It’s easy to see how smokers are lulled into a sense of what ESPN.com’s Paul Lukas calls the “delusion of indestructibility.” Cigarettes/cigars and athletics have made for strange bedfellows over the past century.
In fact, Lukas pointed out that some of the most famous athletes have not only smoked but taken a role in promoting smoking.
“Joe DiMaggio reportedly smoked heavily during his 56-game hitting streak in 1941,” Lukas wrote, “and Hank Aaron did likewise as he approached Babe Ruth’s career home run record.”
Further, many early baseball cards, including that of Honus Wagner, were promotional giveaways to boost sales of tobacco products.
I also straddled the line between smoker and athlete. About 20 years ago, I ran a 5K in Durham, crossed the finish line, and then proceeded to “light up” – filling the finish line air (and other runners’ lungs) with dense clouds of carcinogens.
Today, when running along the 100 block of Franklin Street, I often find myself holding my breath as I pass through pockets of smoke.
Still those small clouds of smoke obscure the reality that today, we understand fully the impact of smoking, and we must wonder how much greater, longer, or more robust these athletes’ careers might have been if not for tar and nicotine.
Truth is, society’s views on cigarettes have turned nearly 180 degrees. The American Tobacco Trail ironically is a local mecca for runners, walkers, cyclists, and those wishing to enjoy fresh air. It even plays host to a yearly marathon and half-marathon event.
Restaurants and many bars ban smoking, television frowns upon it, and movies are reluctant to show WWII soldiers smoking who, in actuality, dealt smokes like currency. Now Orange County is considering a ban on smoking in all public locations.
If you smoke, you’ve probably felt the growing intolerance for tobacco use over the past few decades. If it seems like the whole world is against you – trying to get you to stop smoking – you’re probably right. But, in ways you may not realize, you’re pulling for yourself as well.The Feeling is Mutual
Scientists and physicians are now discovering just how mutually beneficial the relationship is between quitting smoking and exercise, and just how much exercise can help us cut the ties to addictions.
Smoking doesn’t just affect lung capacity, Livestrong.com writer Martin Green wrote in a column for “Act Now BC.”
“It affects athletes’ hearts and circulatory systems,” he said. “Your blood vessels will constrict as you smoke…which leaves you with high blood pressure and tired muscles.
“Smoking makes athletes more likely to sustain an injury,” Green added. “Physical and mental alertness declines, leaving you more susceptible to becoming faint and landing awkwardly, or making an incorrect decision when dizzy and sustaining an injury. Smoking also weakens your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to debilitating viruses.”
Smoking also weakens bones, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center explained, meaning that it takes the body longer to heal when injured.
With a physician’s okay, however, exercise may be just as important a component of a cessation program as a patch or a pill in cutting cravings and mitigating an otherwise-agonizing withdrawal.
By triggering a very natural opiate production and attaching to our opiate receptors, exercise – particularly high-intensity cardiovascular activity –creates a natural high. In short, the body’s natural endorphins fulfill the craving for nicotine: Exercise fills the vacuum as a healthier dependence. Yes, the brain still may treat running or cycling like an addiction, but few souls ever contracted cancer from second-hand running.
Thus, while quitting smoking may enhance the efficiency of our activity, quicken our 5K, or strengthen our hearts, it turns out that exercise in turn eases the path to non-smoking.Where to Turn
The American Cancer Society website ( www.cancer.org
) offers links to steps you can take to quit, anti-smoking programs and a helpline at 1-800-227-2345.
You can also call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for cessation counseling, prescribed medications, and plan resources. The American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking program offers help at www.lungusa.org
So quit tomorrow for a day, or quit soon for good.