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Encouraging exercise may help teens quit smoking

To match Reuters Life! FITNESS-LINEDANCING/
To match Reuters Life! FITNESS-LINEDANCING/

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Encouraging teenage smokers not only to quit, but to get physically active, may boost their odds of kicking the habit, a new study suggests.

The study, reported in the journal Pediatrics, looked at the effects of adding exercise advice to a teen-focused smoking cessation program.

Not On Tobacco (NOT) is the American Lung Association's quit program geared specifically for high school students. It's available in public schools across the U.S., and studies have found that the average quit rate is about 21 percent.

The idea for the new study came partly from the fact that some research in adults suggests exercise can help smokers quit -- possibly by easing withdrawal symptoms or taking the edge off of cigarette cravings.

And in West Virginia, where the study was done, smoking rates are high, while exercise rates are low, said lead researcher Kimberly Horn, of the West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown.

"We felt like (exercise) might be important for these kids, and that the effects of NOT could be boosted," Horn told Reuters Health in an interview.

To study the question, Horn's team randomly assigned 19 high schools to offer either the standard cessation program, the program plus exercise advice or a "brief intervention" in which teen smokers had one session with a program facilitator. (NOT facilitators are usually teachers, coaches or guidance counselors who've trained with the program.)

In all, 233 students took part in one of the three programs.

The standard NOT program offers 10 weekly small-group sessions, in which a facilitator helps kids figure out why they smoke and find ways to kick the habit.

Teens in the exercise-added version also got advice on exercise -- and a pedometer, or step counter, to keep track of their daily activity levels.

After six months, the study found, the NOT-plus-exercise group had the highest self-reported quit rate, at 31 percent. That compared with 21 percent in the standard program and just under 16 percent in the brief-intervention group.

When Horn's team looked more closely at the data, the added exercise seemed to help boys only.

Among boys in that version of the program, 37 percent had quit by the six-month mark, versus only about 18 percent in the standard program. Girls' quit rates, however, were similar in both groups -- at 26 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

The reasons for the gender gap are not clear, according to Horn. "We're a little puzzled by it," she said.

In general, Horn noted, it's known that girls' exercise levels "plummet" in the teen years, whereas boys are more likely to stay active to some degree. "It may be that the girls had greater fitness barriers to get around," Horn speculated.

This study did not actually measure the students' exercise levels, so it's not clear how changes in physical activity correlate with quitting success.

In future reports, Horn said, the researchers will look at whether the program really did boost kids' activity levels, and whether the type of exercise matters when it comes to quitting smoking.

What's encouraging, according to Horn, is that the exercise portion is easy to add to the existing NOT program. "It's just a modest amount of encouragement (to exercise) from the facilitator. And we found that even that small 'dose' might have very important effects."

The hope, Horn said, is that even after kids quit smoking, they'll keep exercising and reap those extra health benefits as well.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/o2esSG Pediatrics, online September 19, 2011.

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