Health promotion & stop smoking resources

Telephone: +44 (0)117 955 0101


Fitness and smoking

Why does smoking reduce fitness? 

  •  Smoking decreases oxygen in the body and reduces physical endurance. To achieve peak performance, your heart and lungs need oxygen-rich blood. When you inhale tobacco smoke, you introduce carbon monoxide into your system – just one of the 4,000 chemicals in the smoke.  When carbon monoxide combines with haemoglobin in the red blood cells, the ability to transport oxygen is reduced. So less oxygen is delivered to your body, the heart and lungs.     
  • Smoking destroys alveoli, the tiny air sacs, making lungs less elastic and less able to absorb oxygen.  Smokers’ lungs have less surface area and fewer small blood vessels. So the lungs receive less food and oxygen than they need to function normally.  Every puff of smoke inhaled causes the airways to constrict.  Over time, the narrowing of airways causes irreversible lung damage.
  • Smoking increases heart rate and blood pressure. This reduces physical endurance.

Effects of smoking on physical fitness

Studies of physical endurance have shown that smokers reach exhaustion before non-smokers and can’t run as far or as fast.  Other effects showed that smokers:

  • Obtained less benefit from physical training
  • Had less muscular strength and flexibility
  • Experienced disturbed sleep patterns
  • Have poorer visual judgement
  • Suffered from shortness of breath three times as often as non-smokers

Smoking affects bones and joints and increases risk of developing:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Hip fractures
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Low back pain
  • Exercise-related injuries

Smokers take longer to heal from injuries than non-smokers. For example smokers with fractures of the tibia required four weeks longer than non-smokers to heal.

Effects on the physical performance of young people

Young people who smoke experience the same harmful effects that adult smokers do. This includes lower physical endurance and performance compared to non-smoking peers, shortness of breath and poorer overall health.  Young smokers slow down their lung growth, impair lung function and cause their hearts to beat faster than those of non-smokers.  They have coughs, phlegm and more frequent and serious chest infections such as bronchitis.

Longer term effects on fitness levels

The decline in fitness and lung function among healthy middle-aged men and women is much greater among smokers than non-smokers.

Smokers and physical activity

Smokers are less physically active than non-smokers. Some people smoke as a weight control measure.  But smoking interferes with effective weight control.  Men who smoke expend fewer calories per day than non-smokers.  Also the fat of smokers tends to be distributed in a less healthy pattern around the body.

Examples of studies on army recruits: 

  • Smoke were twice as likely to fail basic training as non-smokers.
  • Smokers in endurance tests reach exhaustion earlier than non smokers.  
  • Smokers ran a shorter distance in 12 minutes than non-smokers.
  • Non-smokers ran an 80 metre sprint in a significantly shorter time than smokers.
  • Smokers in a 16km run were consistently slower than non smokers. 
  • For every cigarette smoked per day, finishing time increased by 40 seconds.
  • Smoking 20 a day increases the time to run 16km by 12 age years.

The good news

Many of the effects of smoking can be reversed by stopping smoking.  Smokers who quit – even after 60 – have better lung function than smokers who continue to smoke.

People who exercise are less likely to smoke. School children who play one or more sports are at least one third less likely to start smoking.  Taking part in physical activity and sports helps and motivates smokers to quit.


©GASP 93 Cromwell Road
Bristol BS6 5EX
Tel 0117 955 0101 Fax 0117 955 0210

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