Natalie Southwick
August 20, 2015 12:49 pm

The fact that smoking is bad for our health is pretty much taken as a given by just about everyone at this point. When you think of the reasons to steer clear of a nicotine habit, your mind probably goes straight to the scariest consequences: lung cancer, emphysema, birth defects and those robotic-sounding electrolarynx devices, to name just a few.

Now, it’s time to add negative body image to that list. A new Canadian study found that teenagers who smoked were more likely to report feelings of body-related guilt and shame, even if they also engaged in healthy activities like regular exercise.

The study collected survey results from 1,017 teens, mostly 16 or 17 years old, both smokers and non-smokers. Non-smokers who exercised regularly — playing on high school sports teams, for example, or exercising independently — had the lowest levels of body-related guilt and shame. Smokers who exercised still had higher levels of body-related guilt, even though they were keeping up with recommended Canadian standards for exercise for their age group.

Unsurprisingly, smokers who didn’t exercise fared the worst of the three groups, reporting the highest levels of body-related shame.

“Guilt and shame are two distinct entities,” explained Erin O’Loughlin, a researcher at Concordia University, which helped conduct the study, in a press release.

“Shame is tied to self-perception and self-esteem, and reflects a negative evaluation of the self. Guilt has more to do with your actions and reflects a negative evaluation of a specific behavior — in this case, smoking. Guilt may elicit reparative action such as being physically active, and it may be what is driving young smokers to get moving.”

Though the research isn’t conclusive enough to say for sure, this could mean that smokers who exercise might be exercising to compensate for what they know is a bad habit. Smoking is bad, I know, but maybe if I go running every day, it’ll be less bad?

Smokers who don’t exercise, on the other hand, might already struggle with low levels of self-esteem and poor body image, making them even more vulnerable to picking up unhealthy habits like smoking cigarettes.

Guys and girls in the group of active smokers also seemed to have different reasons for smoking — many of the young men said they were trying to gain muscle and bulk up, while young women reported using cigarettes as an appetite suppressant to help them lose weight.

The irony, of course, as anyone who paid attention in health class has probably figured out already, is that there’s another activity that can help with gaining muscle or staying fit and losing extra weight.

Drum roll please… that’s right, it’s called exercise!

In fact, say the researchers, exercise can actually help with quitting smoking, too. Even something as simple as going for a regular walk can help cut down on nicotine cravings, which seems like a much more fun way to quit than listening to lectures from talking cigarette cartons.

While smoking used to be a major social activity, these days it’s mostly a one-way ticket to standing outside in the middle of winter with a few other outcasts who have been banished from whatever fun thing their friends were doing. Smoking can even be a dating deal breaker.

On the other hand, unless you’re guilty of Chris Traeger-esque levels of health obsession, you’re probably not going to find yourself having The Talk because your partner is worried about you playing too much softball.

The good news is that most teens already seem to have picked up on this. While participation in high school sports seems to grow every year — all those world champion Women’s World Cup players have to come from somewhere! — teen smoking rates are at their lowest point in more than two decades.

So, next time you hear someone criticizing this generation’s love of selfies, just tell them it’s the lack of smoking, not social media, that’s really boosting our self-esteem.

(Image via AMC.)

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