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Walking for Just 20 Minutes a Day Can Help Teen Smokers Quit

Update Date: Apr 09, 2013 06:42 AM EDT

Walking for just 20 minutes a day can help teens quit smoking, according to a new study.

The study found that teen smokers were even more likely to quit smoking if they participated in a smoking cessation/fitness program and increased the number of days in which they got at least half an hour of physical activity.

"This study adds to evidence suggesting that exercise can help teenagers who are trying to quit smoking," lead author Kimberly Horn, EdD, the Associate Dean for Research at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services said in a statement. "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."

The study involved 233 teenagers from 19 high schools in West Virginia, the state with one of the highest smoking rates in the U.S., with nearly 13 percent of residents under the age of 18 identified as smokers.

Researchers said the average teenager in the study smoked a half a pack on weekdays and a pack a day on weekends.  Researchers said participants in the study also engaged in other risky behaviors.

"It is not unusual for teenage smokers to engage in other unhealthy habits," Horn said. "Smoking and physical inactivity--for instance--often go hand in hand."

Horn and her team wanted to see if physical activity an help teens quit smoking, regardless of intervention.

In the study, some teenagers went through an intensive anti-smoking program combined with a fitness intervention while others were assigned only to the anti-smoking program or listened to a short anti-smoking lecture.

Researchers found that while all teens in the study increased their physical activity so some degree, teens who reported increasing the number f days in which they got 20 minutes of exercise were able to significantly cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoked.

Researchers said the 20-minutes threshold for changing smoking behavior warrants further investigation.

However, researchers note that the study does have limitations.

"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," Horn said.

"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," she added.

While researchers still do not know the exact mechanism that might explain the latest findings, they say one possible explanation could be that endorphins released by the body during physical activity might help teen smokers better deal with cravings or decrease the withdrawal symptoms that often lead to relapse.

The findings are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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