One of the biggest secrets of the fitness world has nothing to do with supplements, steroids or spandex. It is the almost implausible combination of exercise and smoking.
There are people, it seems, who do both. We're not talking about mall walkers who light up once a week. These are men and women who compete in marathons and triathlons and go hiking and train at the gym – who also have a pretty steady cigarette habit.
In a recent online poll sponsored by Runner's World magazine, 2 percent of the 2,500 people who responded said they smoked, unbeknownst to their running friends. About 4 percent said they smoked but that their running buddies were in the know.
Running's effect on smokers
Sure, smoking is bad for you. But what happens when you combine it with something really good – like running eight miles a day?
Do you get a healthier smoker? Or an unhealthy athlete?
It's one of those is-the-cigarette-half-smoked-or-half-unsmoked conundrums. And there's no definitive answer.
“If people can quit, that's the best thing,” said Dr. Robert Sallis, director of sports medicine at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Fontana, Calif. That seems obvious, but Sallis explains that many of the risks associated with smoking are immediately and dramatically reduced upon quitting. Then he adds: “If you can't stop smoking, exercise will mitigate some of the effects.”
Lung cancer is a prime example. Although smoking increases the risk of the disease, exercise seems to provide a protective effect. In a 2006 study, women who were current or former smokers and had high levels of physical activity were less likely to develop lung cancer than those who were more sedentary.
“When you exercise, that improves your cardiovascular function and your HDL cholesterol, and generally, it's just good for you,” said Dr. Stanton Glantz, professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “So if you smoke and exercise, you're going to be better off than if you smoke and don't exercise.”
Marathon runner Simi Singer, 46, of Los Alamitos, Calif., says she has tried intermittently to quit smoking, often before races. She's currently involved in a hypnotherapy program to stop smoking. When she's smoking, she smokes about five to 10 cigarettes a day.
“When I have quit, I have much more lung capacity and more energy. This past L.A. Marathon I could tell the difference (after quitting). I definitely feel stronger and less tired, and I can run longer without feeling it as much.”
Reduction in oxygen
A study examining the effects of smoking cessation found some fitness improvements after a week. Eleven young men who smoked about a pack a day for 31/2 years were subjected to several tests while on a stationary bike before quitting, and then a week later. The 2000 study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, showed that pulmonary functions showed no significant improvement, but oxygen concentration considerably increased, and exercise time was greatly extended.
“Part of what's happening is the physical irritation” to the lungs, Glantz said. “The industrial solvents that are in cigarette smoke – benzene, acrolein – and then there's the particulate matter and the tars. You're bathing cells in industrial-grade solvents, and it's going to reduce oxygen transport.”
So why do some smokers who exercise say they feel little or no effect from cigarettes? Health experts say part of it might be a degree of denial. Age, how long they've been smoking and how much they smoke are factors. Genetics and physiology might also play a part in how the body handles the damage from cigarette smoke.
Lung and cardiovascular function have to be fairly compromised, Glantz said, in order for people to notice a change: “A lot of these effects accumulate over time,” he added, and smokers may not feel them until they have serious problems.