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Encouraging exercise may help teens quit smoking

(Reuters) - Encouraging teenage smokers not only to quit, but to get physically active, may boost their odds of truly managing to kick the habit, a study said.

Some research in adults has suggested that exercise may help smokers quit, perhaps by easing withdrawal symptoms or taking the edge off cigarette cravings. 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 United States, and studies have found that the average quit rate is about 21 percent.

In the state of 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.

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.

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 teens 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, 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 only boys.

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 were not clear, Horn said.

"We're a little puzzled by it," she added.

In general, it's known that girls' exercise levels "plummet" in the teen years, whereas boys are more likely to stay active to some degree, Horn said.

The study did not actually measure the students' exercise levels, so it's not clear how changes in physical activity correlate with quitting success. Future studies will look at whether the program really did boost activity levels, and whether the type of exercise matters to quitting smoking.

What's encouraging, Horn said, is that the exercise portion is easy to add to an existing NOT program. The hope is that even after they quit smoking, the teens will keep exercising and gain those extra health benefits as well.

"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." SOURCE: http://bit.ly/o2esSG

(Reporting from New York by Amy Norton at Reuters Health; editing by Elaine Lies)

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