First Brain Study Reveals Benefits Of Exercise On Quitting Smoking
ScienceDaily (Feb. 16, 2009) — Research from the University of Exeter reveals
for the first time, that changes in brain activity, triggered by physical
exercise, may help reduce cigarette cravings. Published in the journal
Psychopharmacology, the study shows how exercise changes the way the brain
processes information among smokers, thereby reducing their cravings for
nicotine. For the first time, researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (fMRI) to investigate how the brain processes images of cigarettes
The study adds weight to a growing body of evidence that exercise can help
manage addiction to nicotine and other substances. It backs up previous
studies, which have shown that just one short burst of moderate exercise can
significantly reduce smokers' nicotine cravings.
Ten regular smokers were asked to cycle at a moderate pace for ten minutes,
after 15 hours of abstinence from nicotine. They were then given an fMRI scan
while they viewed a series of 60 images. Some visuals featured cigarettes and
would normally induce cravings in a smoker. On a second occasion, the same
group was given an fMRI scan and shown the same series of images without having
undertaken exercise. They were also asked to report on their cravings for
nicotine during both phases of the study.
The brain images captured by the fMRI show a difference between the two
conditions. 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 compared with when
they had been inactive.
The researchers do not know exactly what caused the difference in brain
activity following exercise. One suggestion is that completing exercise raises
mood (possibly through increases in dopamine) which reduces the salience or
importance of wanting 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.
Previous research by the University of Exeter has suggested that exercise can
reduce nicotine cravings. Results from a series of studies show that smokers
report reduced cigarette cravings after exercising. This study showed that
exercise can reduce cravings when smokers are faced with images that have been
previously shown to cause lapses in smokers trying to quit. This is the first
time that anyone has investigated brain activity during this process.
Kate Janse Van Rensburg, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, lead author
on the paper, said: "Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting
that exercise can help people give up smoking. 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 improved
Kate Janse Van Rensburg carried out this study as part of her PhD with the
University of Exeter's School of Sport and Health Sciences and School of
1. Janse Van Rensburg et al. Acute exercise modulates cigarette cravings and
brain activation in response to smoking-related images: an fMRI study.
Psychopharmacology, 2008; DOI: 10.1007/s00213-008-1405-3
Adapted from materials provided by University of Exeter.
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