It's no secret that smoking impacts conditioning. The lungs are key to aerobic activities -- which require plenty of oxygen -- and even casual smoking litters your lungs with carbon monoxide. Exercise capacity improves shortly after you throw away your cigarettes, and if you quit when you're younger, you can reverse much of the damage, according to the American Cancer Society.
Conditioning Levels While Smoking
The carbon monoxide in cigarettes is the main culprit for the shortness of breath and reduced lung capacity that makes it difficult for regular smokers to complete aerobic-intensive workouts. Red blood cells that would normally absorb oxygen take in the carbon monoxide instead; that leaves your body with less oxygen to deliver to the muscles that need it to complete the workout. Even so, smokers who work out are better off than those who don't. According to an 2008 article published in the "Los Angeles Times," women who smoked but exercised moderately four times a week or vigorously twice a week were less likely to develop lung cancer than those who smoked but rarely worked out. Exercise -- even when paired with a hazardous activity such as smoking -- improves overall health.
Immediate Benefits of Quitting
Smokers will see their health improve almost immediately after quitting cigarettes.Part of this is because the body will quickly flush out irritants, which makes it easier to do aerobic activities. But the effects are more permanent, too. According to the American Cancer Society, just 20 minutes after quitting tobacco, your heart rate and blood pressure will drop; 12 hours later, carbon monoxide levels in the blood stream return to normal and three months down the line, lung capacity will begin to increase. It takes about nine months for cilia -- the tiny hairs that help the lungs function and prevent infection -- to return to normal, and that's when shortness of breath starts to decrease.
Long-Term Improvements from Quitting
The fitness benefits of quitting smoking improve long after that first year. A 2011 study published in the "American Heart Journal" looked at 600 smokers and found that they had lower fitness capacities than the control group; of that same set of participants, people who had quit cigarettes for three years showed improved fitness capacity and a better prognosis for cardiovascular diseases than those who were smoking. Even better news: In about 10 years after quitting, a smoker's risk dying of lung cancer is cut in half; in 15 years without cigarettes, a former smoker's risk of heart disease is the same as a non-smoker's.
Quitting cigarettes is always the healthiest choice. But ultimately, the permanent damage to conditioning levels will depend on how many cigarettes a person smoked. Those who have smoked for decades and developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease might have scarring of their airways from chronic bronchitis or air sacs in the lungs that are less efficient at carrying oxygen due to emphysema. These changes can be permanent and would affect aerobic conditioning.