Running program aims to help smokers butt out for good

The Canadian Cancer Society has teamed up with fitness retailer The Running Room to launch the new pilot program, dubbed Run to Quit.

Program to start at 21 Canadian cities; 50 cities in 2017

Women's winner, Regina Horak, of Madison Wis., smiles as she reaches for water near the 18 mile marker during the annual Bi Lo Myrtle Beach Marathon, in February 2013. (Charles Slate/The Sun News/Associated Press)

Seasoned smokers are well aware of that ubiquitous nicotine buzz: take a drag, exhale and feel the addictive drug ease your nerves as it delivers a fleeting sense of relief.

Now, based on new research, the Canadian Cancer Society wants to instill a more permanent and sustaining feeling in smokers that just might give them the leg up they need to kick the habit.

It comes via running. Call it the runner's high. 

Initial research

The research has prompted the Canadian Cancer Society to team up with fitness retailer The Running Room to launch the new pilot program, dubbed Run to Quit.

The whole idea started at a marathon when John Atkinson, the director for the cancer society's tobacco control and cancer prevention, started chatting with Running Room founder John Stanton.

"We chatted about how in some ways, the cancer society and the running room were both trying to do to do the same thing," he said. "In 2013, we ran a pilot of the program. Ten weeks in person and online for people who want to quit and learn how to run at the same time."

The program is set to start in 21 Canadian cities. (CBC)

The initial results were promising. Atkinson said that people enrolled in a Running Room clinic showed a 29 per cent smoking quit rate. The rate for people quitting cold turkey was just four per cent, he said. 

"We thought we had something — combining exercise and quitting smoking."

Their findings were backed up by similar research out of the University of British Columbia, which found that running would lesson withdrawal symptoms and decrease other symptoms, like jitters.

There's also Atkinson's own experience with quitting. He tried to quit nine times. 

"I was a two-and-a-half-pack smoker. When I quit, I was 250-plus pounds."

He said he started running very gradually, with the help of supportive and active coworkers.

"I started walking, and gradually I introduced some jogging and I started running. And I kind of never looked back."

He's been smoke-free for 16 years.

"I found the running just made me feel good. It made me feel good about myself."

Expanded national program

At least 12,000 people took part in the 51st Scotiabank Calgary Marathon in May 2015. (Scotiabank/Marketwire)

The initial results from their pilot project prompted Atkinson and Stanton to expand the program nationally. 

"This year we're doing it in 21 locations, nation-wide," he said, noting that in 2017, the program will be expanded to 50 locations, and then 110 locations the year after, in 2018.

The program itself is a 10-week smoking cessation program. Participants receive practical support on quitting smoking while also building up their fitness to do a 5-kilometre run or walk.

People enroll in a clinic through the Running Room stores across Canada, or online for those not close to a store. 

The clinic begins in the spring, and involves meeting up weekly for a training and running session, along with personal training and tips of staying off smokes.

Atkinson noted it's anything but a boot camp, describing it as a very gentle exercise program.

As for further evidence he was able to muster, Atkinson said he and Stanton did a pilot project in Ottawa. After six months, close to 30 per cent of participants were still off the cancer sticks.


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