The Non Smokers' Movement of Australia  
Protecting the rights of the Non-smoking majority from tobacco smoke
and from the tobacco industry's propaganda.

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Fact Sheet - Smoking and Fitness

It is a well-known fact that smoking reduces fitness. It does this in a number of ways, chiefly by reducing the amount of oxygen available in the body. Since oxygen plays a major role in energy production, even a minor depletion has an impact on physical performance.


David Pyne, an Australian sports physiologist, lists the major effects of smoking on the body's respiratory and circulatory system as follows:

  • High levels of carbon monoxide from smoking reduce the amount of oxygen absorbed into the blood from the lungs.

  • Carbon monoxide in the blood also reduces the amount of oxygen that is released from the blood into the muscles.

  • Smoke inhalation has an immediate effect on respiration, increasing airways resistance and therefore reducing the amount of oxygen absorbed into the blood.

  • Smoking causes chronic (or long-term) swelling of mucous membranes, which also leads to increased airways resistance.

  • Smoking increases the heart rate for a given level of exercise.


Carbon monoxide, the same lethal gas which is released by motor vehicle exhausts, is present in cigarette smoke and is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. The mechanisms by which it does this are as follows:

  • Once it leaves the lungs, oxygen is transported in the blood by attaching to the haemoglobin within red blood cells. Oxygen has a great affinity for haemoglobin. However, carbon monoxide has a much greater affinity (200 to 300 times greater than oxygen) and so binds preferentially to haemoglobin.

  • Therefore, as the level of carbon monoxide in the blood increases, the level of oxygen decreases.

  • Raised levels of carbon monoxide in the blood also impair the release of oxygen from the blood into the cells. This has a significant effect on heart and other muscle cells where there is a high demand for oxygen.

  • Blood levels of carbon monoxide from smoking can also produce distortions of time perception, psychomotor and visual impairment and negative effects on cognitive skill.

  • Oxygen is important for the functioning of all energy systems in the body, so any mechanism which interferes with oxygen transport and uptake interferes with energy production and therefore sports performance.


Inhaling cigarette smoke results in airways resistance (narrowing of air passages) in a number of ways:

  • Inhalation of smoke from a cigarette can, within seconds, cause a two to three-fold increase in airways resistance, the rate at which air moves in and out of the lungs.

  • Smoking also causes chronic swelling of the mucous membranes of the airways, which adds to airways resistance.

  • When demand for oxygen is elevated, such as during exercise, this increased resistance is more noticeable. Reduced lung capacity can cause a smaller volume of oxygen to reach the alveoli, resulting in impaired gas exchange and less oxygen in the blood.

  • The tar in cigarette smoke adds to airways resistance. This tar coats the lungs, reducing the elasticity of the air sacs and resulting in the absorption of less oxygen into the bloodstream.

  • Tar also affects the cleansing mechanism of the lungs, allowing pollutants to remain in the bronchial tubes and lungs. Increased phlegm and coughing, and damage to the cilia (the hair-like projections which "sweep" pollutants out of the airways) are the result.


The combined effect of carbon monoxide and increased airways resistance is to cause the heart to work harder in an attempt to compensate for the lack of oxygen reaching the muscles.

The nicotine in cigarette smoke also acts as a stimulant, increasing the heart rate and blood pressure, and decreasing the flow of blood through the blood vessels.


Smoking reduces physical endurance and impedes the improvement in physical performance in smokers compared with non-smokers. It also increases fatigue during and after exercise. David Pyne noted the following:

  • While exercise training can increase maximal oxygen uptake by up to 20%, smoking can reduce this effect by up to 10%.

  • In a recent study adolescents who had smoked for five days had an 8% reduction in endurance time compared to controls.

  • Individuals who smoke are less likely to continue in exercise programs.

  • A US study of more than 3,000 naval personnel found smoking was detrimental to physical fitness even among relatively young, fit individuals. The study also found smokers have lower physical endurance than non or ex-smokers.

  • The same study found those who smoked undertook less physical exercise sessions each week than non or ex-smokers. They also exercised less time per session.

  • An earlier US study found that smokers had higher levels of fatigue during both exercise and recovery. The authors believed this increased fatigue may explain why smokers are less likely to participate in regular exercise.


Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke either before or during an event also impairs athletic performance.


There have been several Australian surveys which have looked at attitude and awareness of the association between smoking and reduced fitness:

  • A 1993 study of women who participate in aerobics found that while 98% do so to improve fitness and enhance their physical appearance, 15% of these women also smoke. This is despite the fact that 75% of these women demonstrated a knowledge of the effects of smoking on fitness.

  • In the ABS 1989-90 National Health Survey on Smoking, fitness was an important reason for quitting for those aged 25 and under. For those aged 45 plus, it was the least important reason for quitting.

  • A survey of Australian school children on aspects of health and fitness undertaken in 1985 found that more younger children saw being a non-smoker as important than older children (82% of males aged 9 compared with 62% of those aged 15, and 89% of females aged 9 compared with 54.6% of those aged 15).

  • A Victorian study also undertaken in 1985 found that the majority of post primary students agreed that smoking affected sporting ability. Those who had used tobacco were more likely to agree.

  • Improved fitness was one of the major advantages listed by ex-smokers in a national survey on attitudes to smoking undertaken in 1983. 40% of males and 28% of females saw improved fitness as an important advantage.


  • The National Health Survey found that smokers were more likely to drink and not participate in regular exercise than non-smokers or ex-smokers. Overall an estimated 2.3% of those over 18 smoked, did not exercise and drank alcohol at medium or high risk levels.

A NSW survey showed that 13% of the population aged 15 and over smoked, drank and did not do regular vigorous exercise. There were more males than females (16.3% compared with 9.8%)

    The Non-Smokers' Movement of Australia Inc, Box K860, Haymarket NSW 1240.  
This page was last updated on 21st April, 2006.
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