Imagine if doctors said to obese patients, “I want you to lose weight and so I have this new diet plan for you. Oh, and by the way, I have this awesome exercise program that I could share with you but I’m not going to yet. You see, even though I know that an ongoing exercise program will help you shed pounds faster, I’m not going to discuss one with you now because I don’t want you to think you don’t need to change your diet.”
Crazy, right? Well, this is exactly how most doctors treat smokers. Odds are that if you’re a smoker and you go to your doctor because you’re having trouble breathing, your physician will say, “Simple solution — stop smoking.” Maybe he/she prescribes you a rescue inhaler to use when you really feel acute shortness of breath, and on the way out the door tosses you a pamphlet describing various smoking cessation options (nicotine replacement therapy, smoking cessation counseling, anti-depressants, or a cocktail of all three).
But did you know there have been a number of studies published that demonstrate health benefits for smokers from exercise, improving nutrition/dietary intake of antioxidants and increasing daily exposure to sunlight — even if you continue to smoke? I’ll bet you haven’t heard of such studies because many doctors don’t want to share such options with smoking patients for fear they will interpret this as meaning they don’t need to stop smoking.
While it is true that quitting cigarettes permanently is the single best thing a smoker can do to improve his or her health in the short-term and long-term, the sad reality is that very few people are successful in achieving this goal each year. In fact, each year only about 2 million of 43 million U.S. adult smokers are successful in quitting for 12 months or more.
So what about the remaining 41 million people who can’t or won’t stop smoking in a given year? What do medical professionals offer as an alternative to smoking cessation? The honest answer is… nearly nothing.
However, recent research studies point out three effective ways of improving the health status of smokers who continue to light up:
1. Exercise. A number of research studies have shown that current smokers who engage in a regular program of aerobic exercise (3-5 days a week, 30-60 minutes per session) have significantly lower odds of developing lung cancer and exhibit notably less shortness of breath symptoms. Beyond these compelling reasons, a few other recent studies have revealed that engaging in a regular exercise program actually improves smoking cessation success rates. Even a simple walking program (3-5 days a week, 30-60 minutes a session) has been shown to deliver meaningful health benefits in smokers.
2. Antioxidants. The toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke seriously deplete protective nutrients in the body known as antioxidants. Improving daily intake of foods rich in antioxidants (most often colorful fruits and vegetables) and supplementing with vitamins and other dietary supplements that have high antioxidant content (Vitamin C, Vitamin E, N-Acetyl Cysteine, Quercetin and Resveratrol to name a few) have been shown in recent studies to reduce lung inflammation in smokers. Scientists point to inflammation as a leading cause of breathlessness.
3. Sunlight. As simple as it may sound, getting 20-30 minutes of direct sunlight each day with multiple parts of your body exposed (without sunscreen that blocks UV-B rays) is highly beneficial for smokers. Why? Sunlight helps the body create its own supply of Vitamin D, another vital nutrient that has been shown to be significantly deficient among smokers. Vitamin D, much like the antioxidants mentioned above, is believed to play a key role in moderating inflammation of the airways. If you can’t achieve 20-30 minutes of daily direct sunlight exposure, consider taking a Vitamin D dietary supplement (look for Vitamin D3 in the form of cholecalciferol).
Imagine you, as a current smoker who has been unsuccessful in quitting, took these three proactive steps each day to try to do something healthy in your life even if you continued to smoke and in so doing you: began to feel better physically; gained greater confidence in your ability to improve your quality of life; accomplished more basic activities of normal every-day without constantly needing to catch your breath.
If you were able to pursue these three actions for 8-12 weeks, wouldn’t you think that because of all of these positive changes you would be in a better frame of mind and better physical condition to attempt smoking cessation, therefore increasingly the likelihood of your success?
From a smokers perspective, it seems a lot better option than believing that nothing you can do short of smoking cessation will help you feel better. And from a physician standpoint, it seems a lot better option than simply writing a prescription for a bronchodilator, providing a brochure about smoking cessation, and then waiting for the inevitable hospital admission call to come.