Looking to Maintain or Build Muscle? Put Down that Cigarette!


By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder

I am not going to lecture you on the dangers of smoking. If you smoke, you have heard them all already and you’ve made the decision to continue smoking anyway. The same holds true for any family or friends who also are still smoking.  

But if the health reasons for quitting smoking aren’t enough to get you to consider putting down your cigarettes for good, here are a few that may get your attention. What if I told you that it has now been shown that:

  • Smoking cigarettes reduces muscle, especially in large muscle groups such as your legs, where any decrease would almost be immediately noticed and increases body fat where you least want it?
  • Smoking reduces the effectiveness of your workouts no matter how much time you spend at the gym, how many protein shakes you down or how healthy your diet is?
  • A good part of any weight you may gain after quitting smoking is muscle mass that your body creates after the cigarette toxins leave your body?

So, if you’ve always wanted that “gym bod,” are tired of having “chicken legs” or just want to look better in your clothes or bathing suit, then quitting cigarettes will help you achieve these dreams.   

How Cigarette Smoke Reduces Muscle

A recent study published in The Journal of Physiology explains why cigarette smoking is perhaps one of the worst things to do if you want to maintain or build lean muscle mass. It turns out that in addition to all the other ways that cigarette smoke affects the human body, research indicates that smoking damages your muscles – and makes them weaker in the process – by decreasing the number of capillaries (small blood vessels) that bring them oxygen and nutrients.

If you add in the fact that smoking also reduces the oxygen in your blood in general, then your poor muscles get a double wallop since the reduced volume of blood that reaches them has even less oxygen. Definitely not a good combination. The study, unfortunately, did not identify which of the more than 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke are responsible for this damage. So if you’re thinking of looking for a “safer cigarette” for your muscles, you won’t find it.

Trying to overcome this muscle damage by working out more won’t be successful for several reasons.

The first is that cigarette smoke impacts how well our bodies – including our muscles – absorb and use the nutrients that are needed for healthy muscle growth and functioning.  

To give you an idea of how much smoking can impact vitamin and mineral absorption, research indicates that smoking just one cigarette can cancel out the vitamin C you got from eating that orange after your workout this morning. Smoking also affects how well your body uses vitamin D, which in turn impacts how well it uses calcium, which is necessary for healthy bones. And healthy bones go hand-in-hand with healthy muscles.

Smoking also increases your heart rate – up to 30 percent faster – which makes you burn more energy during your workout. This increased heart rate also ups your blood pressure, which further reduces how much blood (with the oxygen and nutrients your muscles need) reaches your muscles during your exercise. So, you get tired faster, you end up exercising less and that exercise is not as effective as it could have been since your muscles are not getting enough oxygen and nutrients. This results in less muscle growth. The smoking habit also reduces your lung capacity, making it easier for you to get “winded.”

Last but certainly not least, is that the various components of cigarette smoke make it harder for your body to produce testosterone. This hormone is critical for healthy muscles, so not having enough of it in your body (whether you’re a man or a woman) will impact muscle tone and growth. And a lower testosterone level promotes fat gain around the stomach – the last place you want it.

Two other ways smoking reduces the effectiveness of your workouts is by increasing the amount of cortisol in your body and reducing the effectiveness of the insulin your body produces. The former decreases testosterone as well as protein synthesis. The latter can make you tired and hungry, while increasing belly fat.

The good news, as mentioned above, is that quitting smoking can help you increase muscle mass and strength. A year-long study led by researchers in Israel found that almost 25 percent of the weight gained by a group of smokers who quit was in the form of bigger muscles. On average, the researchers found that people quitting smoking may be able to increase their strength by up to 20 percent.  

The reason?

Quitting smoking increased blood flow to the muscles, which brought them more oxygen and nutrients. Basically, quitting reversed the previous muscle damage caused by cigarette smoke.  

Getting Help to Quit Smoking

Any reason you pick for quitting is a good reason. And while quitting is not easy, it can be done. Check out the American Cancer Society or American Lung Association for tips, or get in touch with your local chapters of either. Most hospitals and community health centers also offer smoking cessation programs.

You also should consider:

  • Aerobic exercise may be one way to successfully quit smoking. Exercise may help reduce nicotine withdrawal symptoms. And remember, you have to fuel your body properly if you want to be able to perform physical activities that may help fight addiction.
  • There is some evidence that watercress may detoxify carcinogens in smokers. So, you may want to incorporate this vegetable in your diet to reduce the negative impact of smoking.
  • There are also some studies which suggest that high doses of vitamin C may reduce some of the damage caused by prolonged smoking.
  • Eating a diet that consists of plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. This 2012 study found evidence that smokers who increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables may be more likely to be successful at quitting smoking. This report on the study says that “cigarette smokers who ate fruits and vegetables an average of 4 or more times per day were 3 times more likely to be tobacco free 14 months later, compared with those who ate fruits and vegetables fewer than 2 times per day.” In addition to this, some foods, such as dairy products, fruits and veggies, may make cigarettes taste even worse. On the other hand, coffee, red meat and alcohol appear to make cigarettes taste better. Go figure!

So, the next time you’re exercising or lamenting the sorry state of your thighs, remember that kicking the habit of smoking can make you the envy of the beach next summer.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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