The findings of researchers from the University of Exeter, have shown that changes in brain activity, triggered by physical exercise, may help reduce cigarette cravings. During the study, ten regular smokers were asked to cycle at a moderate pace for ten minutes, after 15 hours of abstinence from nicotine.
The participants were later showed a series of 60 images and changes in brain activity were studied with the help of an MRI scan. Some visuals featured cigarettes and would normally induce cravings in a smoker. On a second occasion, the same group was given an MRI scan and shown the same series of images without having undertaken exercise.
The study showed that after no exercise, the smokers showed heightened activity in response to the images, in areas of the brain associated with reward-processing and visual attention. After exercise, the same areas of activation were not observed, which reflected a kind of “default mode” in the brain. The smokers also reported lower cravings for cigarettes after exercise as compared with when they had been inactive.
Although it is still unclear exactly what caused the difference in brain activity following exercise, the researchers believe that completing exercise raises the mood of a person (possibly through increases in dopamine) which reduces the desire for a cigarette.
Another possibility, is that exercise causes a shift in blood flow to areas of the brain less involved in anticipation of reward and pleasure generated by smoking images. “Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that exercise can help people give up smoking,” said Kate Janse Van Rensburg, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, who is the lead researcher.
“This strengthens the argument that moderate exercise could be a viable alternative to many of the pharmaceutical products, such as nicotine patches, for people who want to give up smoking. A ten or fifteen minute walk, jog or cycle, when times get tough, could help a smoker kick the habit. There are of course many other benefits from a more active lifestyle, including better fitness, weight loss and also, an improved mood,” she added.