Kicking butts

Kicking butts

An exercise lab at the University of Western Ontario hopes to help smokers trade nicotine fits for fitness
January 1, 2008
Many of the nearly five million Canadians who smoke tobacco will make a New Year’s resolution to quit. For most, it will be extremely difficult, and according to Health Canada data, it will require about three attempts before quitting for good.

So what can make quitting easier? Harry Prapavessis, a kinesiology professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, believes swapping the unhealthy habit for a healthy one, like exercise, may be the answer.

“Even small doses of aerobic exercise show an impact on reducing the craving for nicotine,” Prapavessis says. That means smokers struggling to butt out need to develop an action plan that includes regular exercise. Prapavessis’s work demonstrates that exercise may be the first step even before trying to quit. He suggests setting a quit smoking date four to six weeks after adopting a program of regular, supervised exercise. He also recommends combining exercise with nicotine patches and counselling.

This type of research is currently being supported at Western through the new Exercise and Health Psychology Laboratory—an 1,800-square-foot facility complete with a gym that would be the envy of the average fitness club. The lab also includes five suites where researchers can collect and examine body composition, objectively measured physical activity and fitness data, store blood and saliva samples, and run counselling sessions with people in clinical trials.

The counselling sessions make up a vital part of the quitting process. “They are grounded in behavior change principles“ Prapavessis explains. “It gives people the tools they need to quit and to stay smoke free.”

Another important coping technique is to avoid thinking of relapse as failure. Instead, trial participants are encouraged to determine why it happened and to focus on getting back on track. Stress is one of the main triggers for relapse, and exercise is a well-known way to combat stress. By linking exercise with smoke-free living, Prapavessis hopes people can use small doses of physical activity, like a short brisk walk, to combat tobacco cravings.


This spring, the lab will conduct an exercise and smoking cessation study with 60 pregnant women and another in the summer with 375 non-pregnant women. “Working with pregnant women shows just how addictive smoking is. Most women are extremely motivated to quit when they get pregnant but still, many can’t,” says Therese Harper, a PhD candidate who will work on the pregnant women study.

Ultimately, Prapavessis wants to expand his research beyond exercise aided smoking cessation programs. “We’re going to do a long-term study to see how to get people to start exercising, but also to see how to keep them exercising. It could mean sustaining abstinence over time.”


On average, every 11 minutes, a Canadian dies of smoking-related causes. Equally troubling, every 10 minutes, two Canadian teens start smoking.

The average smoker dies about eight years earlier than a similar non-smoker, according to Health Canada. And every year, a thousand Canadians who don’t smoke die from second-hand smoke. This all means that more than 37,000 people will die prematurely this year in Canada because of tobacco. All said, smokers are twice as likely to die prematurely (before age 70) than those who have never smoked.

Strong scientific evidence links smoking to more than two dozen diseases and conditions such as heart attacks, high blood pressure, and a range of cancers. Yet, despite the enormous individual and national costs of smoking, finding a surefire way to help people quit still eludes us.

Thankfully, encouraging initial findings from Harry Prapavessis’s research show that exercise could help people give up smoking. In a recent three-year study, Prapavessis and a team of researchers from the University of Auckland and the University of Western Australia worked with 142 inactive female smokers in New Zealand. The study had the women follow four smoking cessation programs: exercise and a nicotine patch; exercise only; counselling and a nicotine patch; and just counselling.


The exercise and nicotine patch group had the best results, with 27 percent of those participants still smoke-free at 1 year after quitting. The data also showed that exercise without using the nicotine patch was the least effective approach. This suggests that exercise combined with a nicotine patch holds the most promise for future research.

These results motivate researchers at the University of Western Ontario to dig further and establish, once and for all, how best to quit and stay smoke-free. “My nana died from smoking, and I want to be in a position to give something back to people who want to quit,” says Therese Harper, who will soon conduct research at Western’s Exercise Health and Psychology Laboratory. She will assist Prapavessis during a smoking trial involving pregnant women, to see if exercise can help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Harper, who currently lives in New Zealand, won one of that country’s prestigious Bright Future Top Achiever Doctoral Scholarship. She says Western’s exercise lab is one of the only facilities of its kind in the world, and chose it as the site for her research for its high-tech equipment and resources.

For example, the lab has a dual energy x-ray absorpitometry scanner, which scans a person’s body and determines fat and lean body mass as well as bone density. This information can be used to determine the effects of exercise and smoking cessation on weight gain and osteoporosis.

Attracting talented researchers like Harper helps to put Western’s lab on the map and keeps Canada on the frontlines of smoking cessation research. Given that quitting smoking can greatly reduce and even reverse the adverse effects of smoking, such work could save many lives.


The University of Western Ontario’s Exercise and Health Psychology Laboratory has partners in Canada and New Zealand. Prapavessis has collaborated with the Clinical Trial Research Unit at the University of Auckland, which focuses on investigating the causes, prevention, and treatment of major health problems, including diseases and conditions related to smoking.

Closer to home, Western’s lab members collaborate with researchers at McMaster University’s Centre for Health Promotion and Rehabilitation. At McMaster researchers are learning how to keep people with spinal cord injury physically active. Prapavessis can use some of their findings to keep ex-smokers motivated to continue exercising once a clinical trial has finished.


Other partners include the Exercise Psychology Unit at the University of Toronto, and within Western, partnerships exist with the Canadian Strategic Training Program in Cancer Research and Technology Transfer and the R. Samuel McLaughlin Foundation-Exercise and Pregnancy Laboratory.

Learn More

Discover the wealth of smoking-related resources and information available from Health Canada.

Contact your provincial quit smoking line.

Find out what the Canadian Lung Association has to say about tobacco and health.

Take advantage of the anti-smoking Media Campaign Resource Center at The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.