Exercise can reduce cravings and responses to smoking cues that may cause lapses and relapse among smokers trying to quit, according to a study from the University of Exeter.

The study involved 20 moderately heavy smokers who were shown smoking-related and neutral images and then spent either 15 minutes sitting or exercising on a stationary bike at moderate intensity. Afterwards, they were again shown the images.

Using the latest eye-tracking technology to measure and record the participants’ eye movements, researchers were able to observe the length of time people looked at smoking-related images, as well as how quickly pictures of cigarettes could grab their attention, compared with non-smoking images.

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Exercise appeared to reduce the power of the smoking-related images to grab visual attention. An 11% difference was observed between the time the participants spent looking at the smoking-related images after exercise compared with after sitting. Additionally, after exercise, participants took longer to look at smoking-related images.

“We know that smoking-related images can be powerful triggers for smokers who are abstaining,” said lead author Kate Janse Van Rensburg, a PhD student at the University of Exeter. “It’s very exciting to find that just a short burst of exercise can somewhat reduce the power of such images. It is not clear if longer or more vigorous bouts of exercise have a bigger effect. This study adds to the growing evidence that exercise can be a great help for people trying to give up smoking.”

The findings were published in the journal Addiction (2009;106[46]:19467-19472).