One of the more startling conclusions in Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology was that tobacco warning labels might really be ads. Specifically, Lindstrom described the results of fMRI brain scan research that showed images associated with smoking could light up the brain’s nucleus accumbens, an area associated with cravings. While one might expect that images of people smoking or the logo of a smoker’s favorite brand might produce that effect, Lindstrom found that the very labels meant to deter smokers did the opposite.

It seems that our brains are operating at cross-purposes to our efforts to stay healthy – messages that we consciously interpret as telling us that cigarettes will kill us subsconsciously encourage us to light up!

It turns out that one way to “deprogram” the brain’s craving trigger is a mere ten minutes of exercise. Research conducted at the University of Exeter and published in Psychopharmacology found that just ten minutes of moderate cycling negated the effects of smoking images:

The brain images captured by the fMRI show a difference between the two conditions. After no exercise the smokers showed heightened activity in response to the images in areas of the brain associated with reward-processing and visual attention. After exercise the same areas of activation were not observed, which reflected a kind of ‘default mode’ in the brain. The smokers also reported lower cravings for cigarettes after exercise compared with when they had been inactive. [From Science Daily - First Brain Study Reveals Benefits Of Exercise On Quitting Smoking.]

Lead researcher Kate Janse Van Rensburg, a PhD student at the University of Exeter, is bullish on the ability of exercise to reduce nicotine cravings:

“Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that exercise can help people give up smoking. This strengthens the argument that moderate exercise could be a viable alternative to many of the pharmaceutical products, such as nicotine patches, for people who want to give up smoking. A ten or fifteen minute walk, jog or cycle when times get tough could help a smoker kick the habit.”

Access the actual research paper here.

As much as I believe that we are all subject to strong subsconcious forces that govern many aspects of our behavior, I find it encouraging that, at least in the case of cravings induced by smoking images, we can take such a simple step to reprogam our brains.

And, to show exercise does more for your brain than cutting tobacco cravings, here are a couple of related articles:
Can’t Remember Names? Exercise!
Fitness Marketers Need to Get Brainy

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