After smoking for about 20 years, Amy Karasick was finally determined to quit. She was also determined not to gain weight when she gave up the cigarettes. So she came up with a plan.
"I bought a stepper machine the week I quit — and walked 3 to 4 miles five or six days a week," the 43-age teacher from Deerfield, Ill., says. "When I got too good at that, I bought a cheap elliptical machine." The self-proclaimed couch potato prior to quitting, also joined a gym, started going to aerobics classes and worked out on her elliptical machine on other days.
While gaining weight is a common concern for smokers who are looking to quit, Karasick's story — and information from top experts — confirm that it's not inevitable. But the key is having strategies at-the-ready to cope with the physical, behavioral and emotional changes you face as an ex-smoker.
"It is a myth that everyone gains weight," says Dr. Scott McIntosh, director of the Greater Rochester Area Tobacco Cessation Center in Rochester, NY. "In fact, only about one-third of people will gain weight, and the average amount is 8 pounds."
How can you follow through on your resolution to quit — without putting your waistline at risk? Take this advice from the experts, doctors and former quitters alike.
Include fitness in your "quit plan." Not only will you burn calories, but getting physically active can help you experience the benefits of smoking cessation in your everyday life, and reinforce your vow to stay smoke-free. For instance, Karasick says that after she stopped smoking she could, for the first time ever, run up and down stairs without being winded. She also reports having more energy and feeling better overall.
Take the one-two approach. Some people benefit from focusing on quitting first before tackling the weight issue, says Dr. Daniel F. Seidman, director of the Tobacco Cessation Clinic at Columbia University Medical Center in New York author of Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit. "You need to gain confidence about your success in quitting smoking before you start a diet. It's very difficult to do both at the same time."
That strategy worked for Karen Cook, an insurance agent in Radford, Va., who had been smoking for 22 years. "I already had 20 pounds to lose," Cook said. Once she quit, she gained 30 pounds over six months. "I am maintaining that now," Cook said, "so I feel I have leveled off. But I am ready to lose all 50 now."
Try nicotine replacement products or prescription meds. The metabolism-boosting effect of nicotine explains in part the weight gain some former smokers experience. Nicotine can also suppress appetite, and withdrawal can spark feelings of hunger and overeating, McIntosh says."Fortunately, nicotine replacement products and prescription cessation medications like Zyban and Chantix can help with both the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms," he says.
Get support. Join a group such as Weight Watchers to give yourself some accountability with your weight. Chances are, you'll find other former smokers to lean on and learn from.
Find a new (healthier) habit. Replace one behavior — smoking — with another, such as meditation, walking or a hobby.
Reach out. Contact the national quitline (1-800-QUIT-NOW), which can help you plan for a quit date, answer questions about strategies, provide links to web-assisted tobacco interventions, and offer other helpful information.