Mixed race woman holding glass of wine

Social smoking: how badly does smoking affect your health and fitness?

Posted by for Wellbeing

With over 7,000 chemicals in each cigarette, are we naïve to think that casual smoking outside the pub won’t affect our health and fitness? Writer and occasional social smoker Lisa Bowman investigates.  

Research shows that 13.8% of the UK’s adult population smokes, which means that around 6.7 million of us are lighting up. That’s something campaigners are looking to change with a new review recommending that the age at which we can buy tobacco should be raised year on year, à la New Zealand. 

We all know that smoking carries health risks, so why do so many of us still do it? I’ve never been a smoker as such, but lately have found myself sharing a few cigarettes when drinking. As someone who cares deeply about their minutes per mile on Strava, I began wondering just how much a few ciggies were impacting my health and fitness performance. 

It turns out it’s bad news – very bad news. One study shows that smoking just one cigarette per day carries a greater than expected risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke, with relative risks higher among women than men. Research also reveals that lifelong casual smokers carry a 72% higher mortality risk than non-smokers.  


According to the NHS, every year around 78,000 people die from smoking, with an even greater number living with smoking-related illnesses.

“Smoking is still one of the biggest causes of death and illness in the UK,” explains Thorrun Govind, pharmacist and chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society in England.

“Smoking can increase your blood pressure and heart rate, age your skin faster and cause bad breath, yellow teeth and gum disease. It’s also linked to long-term conditions like heart disease and lung disease. Some of the damage from smoking is irreversible.” 

Woman catching her breath on a run in a park
Even the odd cig on a night out is going to have a noticeable impact on your fitness abilities.


Unfortunately for us casual smokers, every single cigarette will affect our performance in the gym.

“If you smoke, you get less oxygen in your heart, lungs and muscles, which reduces your physical fitness,” explains Sarah Campus, women’s personal trainer and founder of LDN Mums Fitness.

“It can also cause inflammation in your bones and joints that may contribute to other conditions like osteoporosis. Those who don’t socially smoke get more oxygen to their heart and lungs and muscles resulting in greater physical fitness. In fact, if you smoke, your resting heart rate is higher than a non-smoker’s due to decreased oxygenation.

“Smoking even makes it harder for clients to do everyday things, like walking up stairs.” 


Luckily, if you’re looking to quit those weekend ciggies, exercise can actually help.

“Quitting smoking improves physical fitness quite significantly and exercise can help reduce cravings,” explains Campus.

“When clients quit, their heart rate will decrease, blood circulation will increase and lung function will improve, making their workout performance better too. Once you quit smoking, changes tend to be seen within one to nine months in terms of results, coughing less and feeling less short of breath.

“I’ve certainly noticed that clients who don’t smoke have noticeably quicker fitness results, as their lifestyle and nutrition are generally healthier – they have a lot more energy in and out of training sessions.” 


While e-cigarettes (or vapes) are technically better for you than actual cigarettes (despite being linked to gum disease and conditions like ‘popcorn lung’), they’re certainly not a healthy option.

“E-cigarettes don’t produce tar or carbon monoxide, which are two of the most harmful elements in tobacco smoke, but ideally you don’t want to be casual smoking with e-cigarettes either as they’re not completely risk-free,” explains Govind.

“Cigarette smoking used to be glamorised in the old days – it isn’t so much now, but instead we’re seeing e-cigarettes potentially being used as an alternative, rather than as a way of reducing cigarette use.”


You might think you’ve got it sussed only having a few cigarettes a week, but there’s the obvious risk of casual smoking becoming a daily habit thanks to nicotine dependency – this doesn’t spell good news for your PBs.

“When it comes to smoking or other recreational drugs, if you’re looking to get fit and healthy, the best solution is to just quit completely,” advises Luke Hughes, personal trainer and founder of OriGym.

“They just can’t be done in a ‘healthy’ way.” 

How to quit social smoking

Tips on how to stop casual smoking from Hazel Cheeseman, deputy chief executive of Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).  

  1. Try the ‘not a puff’ rule. This is a key rule in stopping – tell yourself that you will not have even a single puff of a cigarette. Setting clear rules helps us to change our behaviour
  2. Work out your triggers. Think about the times when you’re at risk of smoking and make a plan about how you’ll avoid smoking. This can help us stop unthinkingly doing the things we always do, like reaching for a cigarette when stressed or at the pub.
  3. Use an alternative. Switching to something like a vape for those times when you’re at risk of smoking can make a big difference.
  4. Quit with friends. People who quit together are more likely to stay cigarette-free than when doing it alone – if you’re a social smoker, why not be a social quitter?
  5. Talk to a health professional. If you want to stop then getting advice from a trained professional is the most proven route to success. There are local stop smoking services (try Smokefree) and GPs and pharmacies can also help. 

Images: Getty

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