Reverse Neuromarketing: Exercise Resets Brain


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

  1. Emma says

    Really interesting stuff, Roger! I love reading your posts. Keep up the great work!

  2. Daniel says


    I thought this post was interesting, but missed some things that are key to interpreting these results.

    First, I haven’t read Buyology. But it seems the relative activation of reward centers in the brain when viewing images of warning labels can be explained by simple classical conditioning. Smokers learn to associate the warning labels with the cigarette packages and the smoking experience. Eventually they tune out the specifics of the label (and of the rest of the package), and the image itself is all that they need to recall the reward of a smoke. We see this in the “lighting up” of the nucleus accumbens.

    When subjects’ brains are scanned with fMRI, comparing a resting state to viewing the images, the relative activation of the nucleus accumbens and the rest of that reward pathway makes sense in this light. Smokers associate the warning label – part of the cigarette package – with smoking.

    Now, compare this interpretation to the study you report above. Before doing so, it’s important to recall that in fMRI research, you are comparing RELATIVE activations of brain areas, not absolute activations.

    We know that exercise is rewarding and that it increases the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine (the primary neurotransmitter in that reward circuit). So when you compare the activation of the brain while looking at smoking images after exercise vs after no exercise, of course you will not see relative activation of the nucleus accumbens.

    The activation in the circuit as a function of exercise matches or overwhelms the relative activation caused by viewing the pictures. Hence, you see no difference and it appears that exercise “clears the brain” or prevents the activation of the reward circuit. But in reality, the difference is in the comparison condition – the post-exercise brain state.

    The good, rewarding feeling following even brief exercise can thus also explain the decrease in self-reported cravings for a smoke. Your reward system has been satisfied, so it doesn’t need the nicotine to do so at that time.

    PhD Student
    Clinical Science and Psychopathology Research
    University of Minnesota

  3. richard shaffer says


    I wonder if the alcohol warnings on wine bottles have the same effect?


  4. Billy says

    Hi Roger,

    I’d like to add more information on neuroscience background.

    It is good to remember that all data built by Lindstrom (warning labels do opposite desired effects) is depending by one fact: nucleus accubens is more active when smokers see warning labels, THEM the subjects are in craving.

    The hypothesis argued that activation of nucleus accubens is explained ONLY by craving is tremendously poor.

    It’s already been described the involvement of nucleus accubens in aversive processing stimuli and avoidance behaviour*.

    Lindstrom’s assumption that warning labels do not work because his own data interpretation, is a great damage to tobacco control field.

    Warning labels is one of the most effective actions to prevent, inform and deconstruct the positive appeal of cigarette packages**. Pictorial warnings when used can provoke the very opposite effect of the smoking ads.

    I’m totally skeptical about interpretations like “neural buy button” or, in this case, “neural craving button”.

    Neuromarketing will be a strong tool when people know how to use it.

    Billy E. M. Nascimento
    PhD Student
    Laboratorio de Neurobiologia II
    Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro – Brazil
    Interdisciplinary Working Group of Brazilian Ministry of Health – developer of the new Brazilian Warning Labels

    * Biological substrates of reward and aversion: a nucleus accumbens activity hypothesis.Carlezon WA Jr, Thomas MJ. Neuropharmacology. 2009;56 Suppl 1:122-32. Epub 2008 Jul 15.
    * Accumbens dopamine-acetylcholine balance in approach and avoidance.Hoebel BG, Avena NM, Rada P.Curr Opin Pharmacol. 2007 Dec;7(6):617-27. Epub 2007 Nov 26.

    ** Smokers’ responses toward cigarette pack warning labels in predicting quit intention, stage of change, and self-efficacy.Fathelrahman AI, Omar M, Awang R, Borland R, Fong GT, Hammond D, Zain Z.

    ** Avoidance of smoking: the impact of warning labels in Brazil.Nascimento BEM, Oliveira L, Vieira AS, Joffily M, Gleiser S, Pereira MG, Cavalcante T, Volchan E. Tob Control. 2008 Dec;17(6):405-9. Epub 2008 Oct 10.

  5. Mysti says

    I am afraid that you have interpreted this data wrongly.
    Excersise does not stop the subjects from associating the labels with smoking and therefore reward.
    Exercise actually satiates their craving, meaning they don’t feel the need to smoke for the time being.
    Daniel explains this mroe fully.

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