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Smoking&Physical Activity

Smoking causes both immediate and long-standing effects on exercise and physical activity. In addition to increasing the well-known risks for cancer and heart and respiratory diseases, smokers have less endurance, poorer physical performance, and increased rates of injury and complications from physical activity.

What causes smokers to be less fit than non-smokers?

To achieve peak performance, your heart, lungs and muscles need oxygen-rich blood. When you inhale tobacco smoke, carbon monoxide (just one of the 4,000-plus chemicals found in tobacco – more than 50 of which are known to cause cancer) binds to red blood cells, displacing oxygen which prevents its delivery to the muscles and other body tissues. This causes an increase in lactic acid (the substance that causes muscle “burning,” fatigue, heavier breathing, and increased soreness after exercise).

This decrease in oxygen will reduce your physical endurance, making it more difficult for you not only to do well in sports but also to do everyday things, such as walking up stairs. This decrease in oxygenation causes a smoker’s resting heart rate to be higher than a non-smoker’s, as the heart must work harder to deliver adequate oxygen to the body.

What are some other effects of smoking on physical fitness?

A number of physical endurance studies have shown that smokers reach exhaustion before non-smokers do and can’t run as far or as fast as non-smokers. Additional results noted that smokers:

  • Obtained less benefit from physical training
  • Had less muscular strength and flexibility
  • Experienced disturbed sleep patterns
  • Suffered from shortness of breath almost three times as often as non-smokers
  • Are nearly twice as likely to suffer an injury than non-smokers
  • Require more time to heal after an injury, or risk not healing at all

Many think that smoking causes inflammation only in the lungs. However, smoking also affects your bones and joints, putting you at increased risk for developing the following conditions:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Low back pain
  • Exercise-related injuries, such as
    • bursitis
    • tendonitis
    • sprains
    • fractures
      • Higher risk for complications during surgery, if needed
      • Slower recovery from injuries

Doesn’t smoking help me keep excess weight off?

Some people begin or refuse to stop smoking as a weight control measure. It has been shown that smoking interferes negatively with metabolism, and smokers are less likely to be physically active. It has also been shown that men who smoke actually consume 350 to 575 more calories per day than nonsmokers. And studies show that the body fat of smokers tends to be distributed in a pattern (mainly abdominal or “central, apple-shaped” fat distribution) that has negative effects on health. A good diet and exercise routine is the best way to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Does smoking affect the physical performance of teens and pre-teens?

Young people who smoke experience the same negative effects of tobacco that adult smokers do. This includes not only lower physical endurance and performance compared to their non-smoking peers, but also shortness of breath, increased sports-related injuries, and poorer overall health.

Smoking among teens and pre-teens can also slow down their lung growth, impair lung function, and cause their hearts to beat faster than those of non-smokers. In addition, young people who are heavy smokers experience coughing, and more frequent and severe respiratory illnesses. More frequent injuries as well as delayed return to sports after injuries has also been observed.

Fortunately for both adult and young smokers, many of the effects of smoking can be reversed when they quit smoking. Sooner is better!


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 9/25/2013...#10643