Smokers make great strides to improve health

Participating smokers have achieved more than they bargained for from a pilot program aimed at improving their hearts and lungs.

Participating smokers have achieved more than they bargained for from a pilot program aimed at improving their hearts and lungs.

Starting in spring and wrapping up last week, the Central Zone of Alberta Health Services piloted a smokers’ running program developed by the Nova Scotia Lung Association.

Learn to Run for Smokers was tried in Alberta for the first time in Stettler, Olds, Drumheller and Red Deer.

Of the 11 who signed up for the Red Deer edition, six stayed to the end, said co-ordinator Gail Foreman.

The weekly training sessions have helped participants make great strides improving their overall fitness. Along with that, they have cut back on their tobacco use and some have actually been able to quit, even if that wasn’t their intention at the outset, said Foreman, tobacco reduction specialist for the Central Zone of Alberta Health Services.

“A body is an amazing piece of machinery and repairs itself immediately after the last cigarette,” said Foreman, who is a registered nurse.

“Even between cigarettes for people who are still smoking, their body is working to repair the damage that the cigarette has done. In just a few weeks, you can see an enormous change in breathing ability.”

Among the participants was 64-year-old Margo Swensrude, who had been smoking to 15 to 20 cigarettes a day for the past 50 years.

Swensrude had to work hard just to walk any distance, but made steady progress throughout the course of the program. A member of a local choir, she also noticed that her singing ability had improved tremendously along with her overall fitness level.

“I don’t know what she sounded like before, but I think she’s had an easier time with breath control,” said Foreman.

Swensrude cut the number of cigarettes she smokes down to five or six a day and can see a time when she will be able to quit smoking altogether.

Two other participants plan to quit over the next 30 days, said Foreman.

Foreman learned a year ago about the Nova Scotia program, which has been operating for just over two years.

“I read about it . . . and happened to know the person who was doing the program there, because she used to work at Olds College.”

Jayne Norrie had been a tobacco reduction counsellor at the college, so had worked with Foreman in a variety of areas.

“Long story short . . . I asked her if there was any chance of expanding the program to other provinces.”

Foreman organized a partnership between the Nova Scotia group, the Alberta Lung Association and Alberta Health Services, which was then able to bring Norrie to Red Deer last April to train people who would run the program. Red Deer Runners Club provided volunteer coaches and mentors while local retailer Runner’s Den helped with shoe and bra fit.

Physical parameters for each participant were recorded at the start of the program, including weight, waste circumference and expired carbon monoxide.

Post-program evaluations are now underway, including measuring for weight gain among those who have cut back or tossed their cigarettes altogether. Weight gain is a problem in part because smoking speeds up a person’s metabolism and also because smoker’s tend to substitute food for cigarettes when they quit.

That weight gain is one of the key factors causing quitters to relapse, especially among women, she said.

“So, this program really focused on the fitness aspect, primarily, but we were there to help people if they were also interested in going that step further and quitting.”

The Nova Scotia Lung Association will follow the participants to evaluate what has happened with them as a result of the running program.

— copyright Red Deer Advocate