Quitting smoking is a lifestyle change, so is starting a diet and exercise program.
Many people who stop smoking for between three days to a week don’t realise they’re most of the way there. Nicotine is not detectable in your bloodstream after 1-3 days. Cotinine, which is essentially metabolised nicotine, is undetectable in your system after 7-10 days.
These statistics reflect the physiological impacts of quitting smoking, but not the psychological ones. Over years of smoking, a person gets conditioned to how it appears to help control stress, concentration, boredom, and weight gain. Coping with these problems afterwards is another story.
Most people return to smoking because of losing control over at least one of those problems and it takes a tremendous amount of dedication and self-discipline to conquer. It helps to realise that each of these are an interrelated, compounding set of problems that most non-smokers have already learned to deal with.
It also helps to know that each is normal human response: Upon quitting, you are going to stress and overreact to things especially if you can’t focus on tasks you are trying to accomplish. You are also going to get bored and won’t have that fidgety cigarette to keep your hands and mouth busy.
If you’ve just quit smoking, you are also most likely to gain a lot of weight. Eating food is not only is a common distraction for stress, lack of concentration, and boredom. Most of us were conditioned as children that eating sweets and fatty foods solves every one of these issues and more.
This is further compounded by the fact that you are no longer consuming nicotine, a stimulant, which is akin to taking an over-the-counter weight loss supplement. Therefore, you are also decreasing your body’s ability to process the same amount of food you were previously eating. By no longer smoking, you also gain back your sense of taste and smell, so the allure of food is enhanced.
Lastly, but most importantly, as a smoker you previously conditioned yourself to finish every meal with a cigarette. If you’ve now replaced the oral fixation of cigarettes with food, your brain never knows when it wants to stop eating… until you just… stop.
The Road Back – Beginning Dieting
After ten years of not smoking, I still have this tendency of run-away eating. The difference between then and now is what I eat and when. Over time, I’ve gradually changed my behaviour to resist foods high in processed sugars and fat.
The operative word is: gradually. Most people that start a diet think that immediately starving one’s self is the primary goal. Those are the people who usually fail. They eventually succumb to their previous conditioning that eating solves all problems.
What I have found was to not stop the quantity of what I was eating, but focus on the quality of what I was eating.
A good example of this is what I was snacking on: That bag of high-calorie, high-fat potato crisps gradually became lower-calorie, lower-fat goldfish crackers. The goldfish crackers then became even lower-calorie and not nearly as much fat rice crisps. The cheddar and the sour cream and onion flavours are my personal favourites.
Likewise, I used to eat a salad consisting of the normal lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and other assorted bland vegetables, but with gobs of high-fat salad dressing drowning it out. The dressing was replaced with light vinaigrette or a simple oil and vinegar.
Today, we no longer have salad dressing in the house at all. We include things like blue berries or strawberry slices, banana peppers or hot-flavoured beets, topped with walnut pieces and/or feta cheese, mixed with either ham, chicken or turkey chunks to add protein.
These adjustments didn’t happen overnight. It was done over the past ten years, gradually changing what I was eating. I’m probably eating just as much now as what I used to eat and perhaps a bit more. But, I’ve gradually found ways to reduce the calorie and fat intake to something healthier and much more manageable.
Countering Weight Gain – Beginning Exercise
Eating is a common distraction when quitting smoking. That’s not a problem as long as it doesn’t become the only solution. Eventually you will need to counter the slower metabolism and increased calorie intake with something that burns it off.
Exercise is a productive distraction that provides you the time to sensibly think things through when you are stressed. The endorphins produced from exercise provide a natural means to counter the fight-or-flight reaction to stressful situations. If you periodically change your routine, it is certainly more productive than plopping oneself on the couch to watch TV when you’re bored.
This, like dieting, needs to be a gradual lifestyle change. If you are used to being sedentary at a desk for eight or more hours in a day it’s probably not a good idea to try to run a 5k, especially if you’ve never done it before.
Depending upon your personal fitness, it might be a good idea to start simple. For example, the first thing I did after I quit smoking was to clean my home office. When I say, “clean,” I really mean, “decontaminate.” Firstly, it was therapeutic because that’s where I did a good lot of my smoking in the house and the smell was atrocious. Secondly, you have no idea how many calories that can burn.
Other things you can do are gardening or taking a good long walks of at least a mile or two. If you’re used to using a riding lawn mower, try getting one you walk behind. All of these are calorie burners that involve some good initial light cardio exercise – just enough to get your lungs working correctly without giving yourself a heart attack.
Aside from getting your lungs and heart in order, it’s just a good idea to ease into an enjoyable fitness program and gradually increase the time and intensity to suit what you want to accomplish. This is more advisable for long-term results, rather then starting with something too hard, burning out and quitting later.
Tracking Your Progress
As with anything, it’s a good idea to start getting into the habit of measuring and tracking your progress. The changes you will go through will be so slow that you won’t notice it by looking in the mirror day-to-day.
For example, you won’t notice any changes to your weight until your clothes are either too tight or falling off. I’ve experienced both.
To get an idea which direction you’re going, it’s essential to weigh yourself at least on a weekly basis. There are differing opinions on the frequency of this. I personally do this at approximately the same time every day for efficient weight management.
The key is not to get too excited about any large changes in weight from one day to the next. Your body can vary between .1-.4 stone (~2-5 pounds) a day depending on how much water you are retaining and other factors. It’s really the longer-term trends based on these granular measurements that you should be interested in.
Weight is the minimum you should be tracking, as it is the primary indicator of success. Because of that, you will want to make sure your scale is as accurate as possible. If the one you’ve been using has seen better days, I highly recommend buying a new one. I initially didn’t and my weight was actually increasing, when the scale was telling me I was losing weight. As cruel as that sounds, my weight ballooned out of control and I couldn’t understand what was going on.
The other thing to track is what kinds of exercise you are doing and for how long; as well as what foods you are eating and at what quantity to get an idea of the calories you are taking in. The combination of these factors form the basis for calorie counting, a very efficient means of weight maintenance, which will be extensively covered in the future.
You should start to get really comfortable with some initial dieting and light exercise after about 3-6 months. This may be sufficient enough of a distraction to get you to the weight and fitness you want to be. Only you can determine if you’re ready to transition from a weight loss phase to a maintenance phase, but it’s something to assess every three months or so.
If you’re not, don’t get frustrated, most people aren’t. It actually took me about two and a half years to get to a point where I was actually losing weight at a consistent rate – equipment failures permitting. Remember that this is just the beginning of a long-term lifestyle commitment. There is plenty of time to make adjustments, step it up to the next level and increasing your fitness.
Last Week: Step 1 – Quitting smoking with the least amount of pain.
Next Week: Step 3 – Taking the next step to losing weight and getting fit.