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The Effects of Smoking on Athletes

The Effects of Smoking on Athletes

By now it is not even a question of whether cigarettes are unhealthy for you. Besides lung cancer, cervix cancer, esophagus cancer, larynx cancer, liver cancer and pancreas cancer; cigarettes can increase your risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as well as birth defects in newborns. These are the facts we all know because they are life threatening and are hammered into our heads as kids.

Less attention has been given to individuals who exercise and still choose to smoke. There are in fact additional side effects that are not mentioned as often by the government or CDC because they are not life threatening and wouldn’t concern the general population. For athletes though, these side effects can limit your performance and can actually make smoking more dangerous than for those who do not exercise consistently. Read on to learn more about how smoking can affect athletes.


Effects of Smoking on Endurance Athletes

While the prevalence of cancer is very well known in association with smoking, many other negative changes happen in the body. Smokers have decreased blood flow to muscles, meaning less of the oxygen you breathe is able to help fuel your workouts. To put this feeling into perspective for non-smokers, it would be the equivalent of trying to run a mile (at a medium difficulty speed) and inhaling for five seconds then exhaling for five seconds. While this doesn’t seem too difficult, it will quickly and very effectively slow your pace down as well as cause cramps.

As stated earlier, while this issue is not a big deal for the average person it will make quite substantial difference for amateur as well as professional athletes who compete in endurance events. Along with the carbon monoxide inhaled when smoking a cigarette, tar and many other chemicals destroy the lungs small air sacs (alveoli), which limits the body’s natural ability to filter oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout the body. Long story short if you want to be an above average endurance athlete, whether it be running, cycling, rowing, swimming, etc. you will never get there while also smoking on a daily basis.

dangers of smoking


Effects of Smoking on Strength/Physique Athletes

Unlike smoking and endurance athletes, this portion of the discussion is not as cut and dry. In fact some groups actually endorse smoking for certain types of weightlifters believe it or not. Since weightlifting requires less cardiovascular and respiratory endurance than other sports, it is easy to dismiss cigarettes as okay for lifters (when it comes to reaching their lifting goals that is). Unfortunately though there are downsides for both lifters who are focusing on strength as well as those who are focusing on aesthetics.

For strength athletes, smoking can damage bone health as well as cause rheumatoid arthritis. When lifting mass amounts of weight, no lifter wants to worry about possibly severely injuring themselves due to weak bones and joints. On top of all this, nicotine has been shown in studies to actually decrease recovery. What this means for lifters is more rest days out of the gym and decreased performance when in the gym.


Smoking & Weight Loss

Smoking is also very good at suppressing appetite, something strength athletes want to avoid, as this could lead to slower or even no progress in the gym due to being in a calorie deficit.

This might seem like a positive for physique athletes though (which is why some bodybuilders smoke when trying to get lean) as weight loss is ultimately a bodybuilder’s final goal, but in the grand scheme of things really it is not worth the risk. It is infinitely safer to diet down and lose weight through a healthy diet and increased cardiovascular work. This is where some of the negatives mentioned earlier for endurance athletes overlap with physique athletes.

While smoking can help with weight loss, it is just as effective to start weekly cardio, actually increasing your cardiovascular health instead of hindering it. Another important thing to mention is smoking’s ability to impair the immune system, leading to more sick days out of the gym and less progress over time.

Finally, something that can affect all types of athletes: smoking can actually decrease testosterone levels in the body. By damaging the cells that produce testosterone, this can lead to less than optimal performance in the gym (added onto all the other side effects that can do the same) as well as hampered libido and fertility.

dangers of smoking


Take Home Message

At the end of the day it takes a lot for an individual to quit smoking. Telling them the side effects and life threatening cancers usually is not enough, but hopefully this article can get smokers thinking about what they are missing as well as make them aware of other side effects that are not talked about as much.

Even with a jam packed article I was not able to get around to talking about how smoking can cause sagging skin, tooth loss, Type 2 Diabetes, cataracts and even more. While yes, you can be an athlete while being a smoker, the bottom line is that you will never know how much you are capable of.

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Billy Galipeault

Billy Galipeault

Writer and expert

Billy is passionate about all things fitness and nutrition, with an emphasis on muscle and strength building. He's currently serving active duty in the air force, while building his body muscle by muscle in his free time.


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