Smoking causes both immediate and long-standing effects on exercise and physical activity. Smokers’ increased risks for cancer and heart and respiratory diseases are well known. Yet in terms of exercise and physical activity, smokers also have:

  • Less endurance
  • Poorer physical performance
  • Increased rates of injury and complications

What causes smokers to be less fit than nonsmokers?

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. Oxygen is displaced, preventing 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 to do well in sports. It makes it harder to do everyday things, too, like walking up stairs. Decrease in oxygenation also causes a smoker’s resting heart rate to be higher than a nonsmoker’s, as the heart must work harder to deliver enough 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 nonsmokers do and can’t run as far or as fast as nonsmokers. 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 nonsmokers.
  • Are nearly twice as likely to suffer an injury than nonsmokers.
  • 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 preteens?

Teen and preteen smokers experience the same negative effects of tobacco that adult smokers do, such as:

  • Lower physical endurance and performance compared to nonsmoking peers
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased sports-related injuries
  • Poorer overall health

Smoking among teens and preteens can also slow down their lung growth, impair lung function, and cause their hearts to beat faster than those of nonsmokers.

Young people who are heavy smokers also 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!

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/30/2017.


  • National Cancer Institute. Quitting is a Journey Accessed 2/15/2017.
  • Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. Smoking, Physical Activity, & Poor Physical Performance Accessed 2/15/2017.
  • Chiolero A, et al. Consequences of smoking for body weight, body fat distribution, and insulin resistance. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr April 2008;87(4):801-809
  • Wack JT, et al. Smoking and its effects on body wright and the systems of caloric regulation. American Society for Clinical Nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr 1982;35:366-380.

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