If You Have to Walk Outside to Smoke, Does the Exercise Benefit Counteract the Smoking?

A reader named Aras Gaure, who identifies himself as a trainee with the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, writes to us:

At my workplace, smoking is prohibited –- as in a substantial number of other indoor workplaces. In order for me to have a smoke, I have to walk about 10 meters, get down 2 flights of stairs (a total of nineteen steps), and then walk 15 meters to the nearest terrace. In one workday, I have about 4-5 cigarettes, which means I cover a distance of about 200-250 meters and between 144 and 180 steps every day with regard to my smoking. Many people obviously smoke more and have to cover an even greater distance in order to have a cigarette. As a result of continuous bans on smoking around the world, people (who don’t quit) in many cases have to go through physical exertion numerous times a day to have a smoke. My question is whether or not this (in any sense or form) can be considered beneficial (especially for people who otherwise wouldn’t get this exercise)?

An interesting question but my sense is that the amount of exercise Aras describes — or even 5x that amount — is so minimal that it wouldn’t come close to offsetting the downsides of smoking. There are certain reported “health benefits of smoking,” including weight loss, but even for someone who likes finding counterintuitive trends, I have a hard time buying Aras’s wishful thinking. Am I wrong?

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  1. Nanno says:

    There is one benefit you gain, 4-5 times a day an extra 5 minute break.
    Recent surveys have shown that non-smoking employees actually resent their smoking colleagues for those breaks.
    furthermore, there are several (especially telemarketing) companies who have calculated the extra costs of a smoking employee. I think it was about € 11,000 a year per smoker.

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    • Nanno says:

      For all dutch people (although a South-African might understand it), herewith a program by the public broadcasting (Publieke Omroep, KRO) which calculates the cost and benefits of smokers in the Netherlands.

      http://www.derekenkamer.kro.nl/seizoenen/2011/afleveringen/04-03-2011/

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    • pawnman says:

      Way back when I worked as a manager for Taco Bell, I too used to resent my employees for taking smoke breaks and leaving me to do the work. So I started taking “non-smoke” breaks. After a couple folks went to have their cigarettes, I’d sit back in the office, or in the lobby, or if it was a nice day, out in the smoking area with my book for 5-10 minutes, not smoking.

      If you aren’t a smoker, and you’re coming to resent your smoking colleagues…nothing is stopping you from making the small trek to the outdoors and enjoying the sunshine without a cigarette.

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  2. Bill says:

    This question illustrates The power of rationalization at its finest I think. Maybe the extra walking required after a DUI that an alcoholic may get will help offset the liver failure/cancer that will likely occur if they don’t stop drinking.

    Maybe the extra energy and therefore activity you get from abusing amphetamines will offset the need for a new nose, ruined teeth, and heart problems an abuser will get.

    Maybe the fact that people who abuse depressants (other than alcohol) don’t leave the basement as much means they are less likely to break their leg in a skiing accident or get hit by a car crossing the street.

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    • Jim says:

      As long as “rationalization”, as you’ve used the term, means the idea of coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, and reporting the results for peer review.

      “[N]on-smokers live longer than smokers, and thus … the health care costs of non-smokers during the ‘extra’ years of their lives (compared to smokers) balance, at least to some extent, the higher costs smokers experience during each of their (fewer) years of life… ”

      [S]tudies … indicate that the net costs of smoking—the costs of treating smoking related illness minus the additional expenditures on non-smokers because they live longer—are small or non-existent.”

      Journal of Tobacco Control, 2000
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1748316/pdf/v009p00078.pdf

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  3. Enter your name says:

    With kids, if you have them run around a lot as part of a sports program, they balance it by moving less the rest of the day. The same might be true with adult smokers, especially if they are consciously aware of this “extra” exercise.

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  4. Ahmed Zghari says:

    Walking as exercise is only beneficial if you up the rate to get the heart moving faster and for a sustained period of time. Plenty of research on this and the Healthy People 2020 guidelines (healthypeople.gov) recommend walking as an obtainable goal to better health.

    If you walked briskly for 20 minutes, at least three times a week, and smoked you may become physically healthier, but the lungs would become congested with smoke particles – you would have to walk briskly for 30 minutes, five to 10 times a week to counter the effects of this problem.

    I would suggest drawing an exercise track, in chalk, around the buildings you frequently use to smoke around. Create some sort of routine to associate smoking with brisk walking to get into the habit (no pun intended) and smoke the cigarette over a 30 minute period (this may require two cigarettes) as a marker for when time is up to stop walking.

    Three cigarette breaks a day during working hours, 30 minutes each interval, may require some downward renegotiations of pay and benefits.

    The downside is that smoking will likely cause cancer at any rate, but the heart may suffer less than a typical smoker.

    Best of luck.

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  5. Eric M. Jones says:

    I have to respect an old CEO I knew who published a policy of not hiring a smoker if a non-smoker is available to fill the job. Then they hired a sociopath, then fired him and hired a crackhead. But neither smoked cigarettes.

    Nicotine by itself in the bloodstream is indistinguishable from cocaine. One experienced user in a study said that nicotine felt like cocaine injected by very dirty works. It works on the same brain receptors too. Ref (to get you started): http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/270575.stm

    Health benefits? I am in favor of making drug addictions (like smoking) a medical, not a legal issue. I am in favor of legalizing Marijuana.

    But I wouldn’t hire a tobacco smoker if I could avoid it–or any other drug addict.

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    • Nanno says:

      The study you referred to compared nicotine and cocaine in the same doses. But I think you’d agree that smoking a (or even a couple a day) cigarette and snorting cocaine isn’t nearly the same.

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  6. Andreas Moser says:

    He could walk the same distance to eat an apple outside of his office.

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  7. Dan says:

    One thing that I’ve always wondered is if people who smoke actually get more out of a smaller amount of cardiovascular exercise. For example, right now I don’t smoke, and consider my lungs to be in pretty decent shape. I get a good workout from running 4-6 miles. However, when I did smoke, I would get completely winded after 2-3 miles, and would actually “feel” the workout more than I do now. Is this another sort of perverse benefit of smoking? Namely, are the returns to exercise are greater for smokers than for non-smokers?

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    • Nanno says:

      You should make a tell-sell commercial: Do you also hate having to run for 5 miles before you get tired?

      Then we have the solution for YOU!! If you smoke one of our amazing packs a day you will be exhausted before you know it!

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      • Dan says:

        Haha, the funny thing is that if there’s any truth to what I suggested (and even if there isn’t), it would have been a plausible advertising strategy for cigarettes 30-40 years ago. I wonder what industries/products were hit hardest by the ban on cigarette advertising? I think the ban went into effect in the early 70s, but not sure.

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    • pawnman says:

      No. The fact that you can run farther now, before getting tired and “working up a sweat”, is evidence that you are in BETTER shape having given up the cigarettes. Just because you are winded doesn’t mean you’ve done your body any favors with your excursion.

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  8. KevinM says:

    Aside from being a massive exercise in rationalization, this takes too far what can be a useful form of reductionism in statistical analysis First, it aggregates incommensurable quantities under the general heading of “good for you.” It’s nearly as valid to ask whether the danger of reading while driving is offset by the learning experience. This is not really a meaningful question unless walking inhibits lung cancer and emphysema. Second, this is not really a meaningful question unless you wouldn’t or couldn’t take a walk without having a smoke as well. As they used to say on college exams: if not, why not?

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