Not Ready to Quit Smoking? Try These Lifestyle Changes Instead

Healthy eating and exercise can make it easier to quit when you are finally ready.

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Many people want to quit smoking but aren’t sure if they can completely commit to a plan yet. If you’re not ready to give up tobacco, there are other lifestyle changes you can make now to improve your health.

Changing your diet to include more healthy foods may make it easier to kick the habit. Plus, studies have also shown exercise can have a positive effect on your smoking cessation success. Both can stave off weight gain some people fear will happen when they give up cigarettes. What's more, making positive changes in nutrition and activity before you quit can also help you reduce the number of cigarettes you currently smoke.

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How smoking affects nutrition

Even if some smokers make unhealthy dietary choices, they may not gain weight at the same rate as non-smokers. Nicotine speeds up resting metabolism in smokers, allowing you to burn calories at a quicker rate. The metabolic rate decreases when you quit smoking and take in more calories. Cigarettes also tend to reduce appetite.

Many ex-smokers or people trying to quit use foods high in fat and sugar to substitute for the rewarding effects of cigarettes, because they also crave these types of foods while they smoked.

A recent study from Yale University evaluated survey data from 5,293 US adults and found that smokers consumed around 200 more calories per day than non-smokers or former smokers, despite eating significantly smaller portions of food. Smokers also tended to eat more calorie-dense diets with less fruit and vegetables.

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The benefits of fruits and vegetables to smokers

The good news is that eating a healthy diet can counteract the changes that occur in metabolic rate and appetite when quitting.

In a phone survey conducted by the University at Buffalo, researchers found that smokers in the top 50 percent of fruit and vegetable consumption were less likely to smoke more than 20 cigarettes per day or smoke within 30 minutes of waking. Those in the top 25 percent of fruit and vegetable consumption had a quit rate that was 2.5 to 3 times greater than smokers who ate less produce.

Fruits and vegetables can also can worsen a smoker’s perceived taste of cigarettes, along with non-caffeinated beverages and dairy products. Meats, caffeinated drinks and alcohol are sometimes perceived as enhancing the taste. By eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing meat consumption before quitting, you may possibly make staying smoke-free easier by changing your perception of how cigarettes taste.

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Diet changes to make before quitting

There are certain nutritional changes that can help smokers reduce the number of cigarettes they have throughout the day. Eventually, smoking fewer cigarettescould make easier to quit completely.

Eat more veggies. Consume a wide variety of vegetables—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas) and starchy. Try to increase the vegetable content of dishes while decreasing the amounts of meat or refined grains. Add a meatless Monday to your meal plan or put more leafy greens into a breakfast smoothie.

Eat more fruits. Especially whole fruits. It can be tempting to replace a cigarette craving with dessert, but berries, melons or an apple can be just as sweet. Add fruit to yogurt at breakfast, salads at lunch and at the end of a healthy dinner.

Eat healthier dairy products. Try fat-free or low-fat milk (or a fortified soy beverage) with cereal, in coffee or just to drink. Choose low-fat plain Greek yogurt as a snack or use it as an ingredient in salad dressings or spreads.

Reduce caffeine and alcohol. Since these can influence your perceived taste of cigarettes and also be triggers that cause you to crave tobacco, try to cut back on both.

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How exercise helps smokers

Exercise may be one of the most consistent and reliable ways to reduce cravings. A 2016 review of exercise and smoking found that 17 studies showed it was effective in reducing cravings. And you don’t have to run a marathon or set a world record to reap the benefits; a 2014 study suggests that even light exercise significantly reduces cravings.

Exercise alleviates a depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, tension, restlessness and concentration difficulties—all symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. Exercise has also been shown to decrease responses to cigarette cues and increase time between cigarettes. This mean you can naturally reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke just by adding exercise into your routine.

Physically active smokers tend to have lower nicotine dependence and are more likely to attempt a quit, too. They may be less vulnerable to nicotine withdrawal and more motivated to achieve cessation than sedentary smokers. In a recent study of women who quit smoking, the low-exercise group was at 1.6 times more likely to relapse compared to high-exercise group.

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Exercises to try

By increasing your physical activity now, you can increase your chance of success when quitting. Both moderate and vigorous exercise may help reduce symptoms of nicotine withdrawal and dampen cigarette cravings. Just remember to start with small goals and talk to your doctor about your plan.

Here are some examples of activity you can add to your day. Even just 10-minute bursts of exercise can help reduce the urge to smoke.

Yoga. Research shows that yoga can blunt nicotine cravings. A small 2011 study found that following one hour of abstinence from nicotine and a half-hour session of yoga, participants reported a decrease in cravings across the board. If you don’t practice, consider trying a beginner class or download an app.

Aerobic activities. Whether it’s swimming, walking, running, playing a team sport or just trying a new workout video at home, exercise is a great distraction from smoking. Physical activity relives tension and stress. The important thing is that you do activities you love and are not afraid to try out something new.

Everyday activities. Even tasks like gardening or cleaning your house can turn into exercise. Some people make everyday chores more aerobic by lunging while vacuuming or doing jumping jacks in between washing dishes. These activities also have the benefit of keeping you occupied instead of smoking.

Strength training. You don’t have to hit the gym for a long strength session. Short bursts of activity can help you fight off the urge to smoke. If you have 10 minutes or less, do body weight exercises like push-ups, core work, squats or calf raises. These can be done at times when you would normally have a cigarette—when you first wake up, during a work break, talking on the phone or while TV commercials are on.

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