Is it safe for smokers to do HIIT forms of exercise?

There are smokers out there who are wondering if it’s okay to do HIIT, due to its hardship on the cardiovascular system.

Another type of individual who may be wondering if it’s safe for smokers to do HIIT is a certified personal trainer — who has a tobacco-using client eager to get hopping with a fitness program.

“Yes, HIIT forms of training are tremendously popular, but with respect to your question pertaining to smokers, I would be leery of implementing such a program for the following reasons,” begins Fabio Comana, MA, MS, Senior Fitness Educator for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) as well as an ACSM-certified personal trainer

“(1) Link of smoking to cardiovascular disease and the excessive sympathetic stimulation occurring with HIIT may trigger an unfortunate episode (heart attack).

“(2) Smokers may suffer restrictions / obstructions to breathing which can be compounded by the huge O2 deficits accumulated during HIIT.

“(3) Smokers generally are not very active; hence have a poor tolerance for exercise.

“High intensity interval-type training would certainly not be an enjoyable experience and probably deter them from adherence.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like very inviting news to smokers who are wondering if they can safely do high intensity interval training.

However, you may wonder about the safety of HIIT for already-active smokers. Suppose a tobacco puffer has been jogging a few miles a day, or regularly plays pickup basketball games, or hikes or goes mountain biking.

Do the same HIIT guidelines apply to conditioned smokers?

Comana explains: “The same argument applies regarding the sympathetic nervous system for the active smoker (exacerbated for the nonsmoker).

“The SNS response is your ‘flight or fright’ response — activated when the body perceives stress (e.g., exercise).

This neural response brings about numerous acute changes to prepare the body for the ‘flight or fight’ response — accelerates heart rate, blood pressure, breath rate, mobilization of fatty acids, release of exercising hormones, etc.

“The greater the stress (intensity), the greater the SNS response.”

Thus, it is this greater sympathetic nervous system response that creates the problem in a smoker, which is why even for active tobacco users, HIIT can be potentially harmful.

But in no way does this mean that tobacco users should avoid exercise! Exercise helps suppress cravings for tobacco, and at moderate intensities will enhance cardiovascular fitness.

But if you wish to do HIIT, what’s the solution? Quit smoking.

Fabio Comana is frequently featured on TV,  radio, Internet and in print publications, and has authored chapters in various textbooks and publications.
Lorra Garrick is a former personal trainer certified through the American Council on Exercise. At Bally Total Fitness she trained women and men of all ages for fat loss, muscle building, fitness and improved health. 
Top image: Shutterstock/Slava Dumchev