January 17, 2016 - 7:00 AM
TORONTO - Jennifer Jeaurond had tried everything to kick her 23-year tobacco habit: hypnotherapy, the nicotine patch, a craving-reduction medication and even electronic cigarettes. Nothing worked.
That is until she signed up in 2013 for a 10-week smoking-cessation course in Ottawa, organized as a pilot study by the Canadian Cancer Society and the sporting goods retailer, the Running Room.
The idea of the Run to Quit program was to gradually wean participants off cigarettes as they increased physical fitness through a tailored course of walking and running at a Running Room store, coupled with a variety of support programs provided by the cancer society.
"What appealed to me was it wasn't like other smoking-cessation programs," Jeaurond, 40, said from her home in Aylmer, Que. "This one wasn't about abstinence, but rather it dealt with the addiction to smoking by introducing connections. It was connecting us with other smokers and connecting us with healthy people."
Attending the weekly Run to Quit sessions with other smokers made her feel not so alone as she struggled to overcome an addiction that had its roots in her first cigarette at age 14. She and several others in the class formed their own early-morning running group, motivating each other as they prepared for a five-kilometre race.
"You build healthy connections and therefore you don't need that chemical hook anymore," she said. "Because we fell in love with the sport of running, we could not keep up our habit of smoking."
So successful was the pilot study — 29 per cent of the almost 70 participants reported not smoking for the previous 30 days at a six-month followup — that the cancer society and Running Room are teaming up to provide the program over the next three years with a $4-million-plus grant from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
Starting in mid-April, 21 Running Room locations in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador will offer the 10-week program at a cost of $69 for in-person classes and $49 for an online, self-directed course that provides information on running and quitting through printed instruction, audio and video clips and even a virtual coach.
Next year, the program will extend to 50 store locations across the country and to 110 in 2018, said John Atkinson, who heads the Canadian Cancer Society's Smokers' Helpline.
Results from the Ottawa pilot also showed that at the six-month followup, 21 per cent of participants had maintained continuous abstinence from tobacco, while 50 per cent reported not having smoked for the previous seven days.
"These are considered very good results," said Atkinson, a former two-pack-a-day smoker who quit cold turkey 16 years ago when he joined a running group, after trying nine times to kick the habit without success.
"By joining an actual running group, it gave me a sense of accountability. I had a group of people that I got to know ... I'd agreed to do a five-kilometre run and I had made a commitment to myself and then got the camaraderie and friendship of others that kept me coming week after week.
"And also, I felt so good after I started to exercise. I felt great," said Atkinson, who completed the Boston Marathon last April and is preparing for Ottawa's marathon in May.
Research shows that physical activity can be a powerful tool for those trying to butt out for good, he said.
"Some of the research shows it can reduce cravings, withdrawal symptoms, negative mood, obviously weight gain. It can reduce some of the psychological symptoms of smoking that decrease coping abilities and self-esteem."
John Stanton, the Edmonton-based founder and CEO of the Running Room, said the Run to Quit program gives smokers the means for bucking their addiction within a "welcoming, non-judgmental" environment.
"The most important aspect is we're going to put them in a group of like-minded people and these are people who are going to try to quit too," said Stanton, 68, who got shut of his two-pack-a-day habit 32 years ago after taking up running to lose weight and to get in shape.
Smokers who sign up aren't expected to run full out from the get-go, but to combine walking with short bouts of running, to raise their fitness level at their own pace, he stressed.
The same is true for getting off cigarettes.
"We're not going to say you have to quit cold turkey. Let's try to quit gradually over the 10 weeks, let's introduce you to exercise, to better nutrition. Let's talk about sleeping better and getting rid of some of the stress levels that are causing you to smoke," he said.
"If somebody's there putting an arm around you and saying, 'We're going to give you a hand with this. We're going to show you the light at the end of the tunnel. You can do this,' in 10 weeks we can change your habits."
As for Jeaurond, she continues to be smoke-free and to run with friends. She completed her first half-marathon in 2014 and plans her second one in May.
Run to Quit: http://www.runtoquit.com/
Canadian Cancer Society Smokers' Helpline: http://www.smokershelpline.ca/
Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016