Congratulations on kicking your smoking habit! You’ve taken a huge step in improving your health and even adding years back to your life. Within minutes, days and weeks—the benefits kick in and continue for decades. That’s nothing to scoff at!
“The benefits of quitting smoking start right away and can reduce your risk of premature death and may even add as many as 10 years to your life,” said Gregory Golden, DO, a pulmonologist who see patients at the Banner Health Clinic in Northern Colorado. “It improves poor reproductive health outcomes, cardiovascular disease, COPD and decreases cancer risk. There are even benefits for those who’ve already been diagnosed with COPD or heart disease.”
Tips to protect your health after you’ve kicked the habit
You should be proud of making a commitment to be smoke-free. To ensure you stay tobacco-free, physically healthy and avoid falling back into old habits and addictions, Dr. Golden shared these five tips.
1. Screen for lung cancer
As a former smoker, your risk is lower for certain cancers than if you continued to smoke. Unfortunately, the risk remains higher than a non-smoker, especially your risk for lung cancer. Talk to your health care provider if you’re concerned about your risk for lung cancer. If you meet the criteria, they may recommend you undergo a yearly lung cancer screening.
“Lung cancer screenings depend on each individual, but if you fall between the ages of 50 to 77 and have smoked within the last 15 years or had a total average of 20 years of smoking a pack day (average packs per day times years smoked) or more, you should get annual CT scans for lung cancer,” Dr. Golden said.
A low-dose spiral CT scan is used to look for early signs of lung cancer and aren’t like regular CT scans. “They are done under a different protocol with lower exposure to radiation,” Dr. Golden noted.
If you’re thinking about getting screened and meet the criteria, talk to your health care provider. If lung cancer screening is right for you, your provider can refer you to a high-quality screening facility.
[Read “What to Expect During a Lung Cancer Screening.”]
2. Plan for challenges
After you quit smoking, it’s important to avoid secondhand smoke and situations and places where you’ll be tempted to smoke. “All exposure can increase your risk, but studies show that placing yourself in situations where smoking is common increases your risk of starting to smoke again,” Dr. Golden said. “It’s OK to leave a situation that triggers temptations to smoke again.”
Research shows that smokers tend to have higher stress levels than non-smokers. Most people find that stress levels are lower six months after they quit than before they quit. If you have a situation, such as stress at work, be prepared to deal with it. Come up with ideas and activities to do instead of smoking at those times you usually want to reach for a cigarette.
It may also help to change up old routines in which smoking was a part of to avoid triggers that tell your brain, “Oh, it’s time for a smoke.” Breaking the habit can help keep temptation out of your thoughts.
3. Get physical
As little as 30 minutes a day of exercise can help you keep your weight stable (as long as you’re eating a healthy diet), improve your mood, manage stress and help curb temptations. “Exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can improve shortness of breath from lung disease and previous smoking as well,” Dr. Golden said.
Here are a few tips to get you started with exercise and improve your overall health:
- Do activities you enjoy, like walking, biking, swimming or yoga.
- Build exercise into your daily routine. Instead of taking the elevator to work, try the stairs instead. When you go shopping, park your car farther away and walk to your destination.
- Find an activity partner to help keep you accountable.
4. Get vaccinated
If you smoke or have smoked, you may already have lung problems, which can make you more likely to get very sick from viruses like COVID-19, the flu and pneumonia. Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza (the flu) is important for everyone, but especially people who have or are at risk for lung cancer.
“There is evidence of worse overall outcomes for people with smoking-related lung disease,” Dr. Golden said. “The best thing you can do to decrease your chances of dying of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated.”
Talk to your health care provider about staying on top of your vaccinations each year.
[Find a vaccine location near you by visiting vaccines.gov.]
5. Don’t give up
If you slip and have a cigarette, don’t beat yourself up. Focus on getting back on track as soon as you can. The sooner you do, the better. If it helps, lean on a supportive friend, support group and online forums or work with your health care provider who understands the challenges you face and can help you get back on track.
“We all fall off the wagon of something, whether that be food, alcohol or smoking,” Dr. Golden said. “The best thing we can do for ourselves, and our loved ones, is to learn from our shortcomings and do our best to overcome. As my grandma told me, ‘Just do it again.’”