How to beat Addiction and Quit Smoking with Exercise

The Theory

Addictions are tough. Sex increases dopamine levels 50-100%; cocaine increases it 300-800%. The allure of drugs is vivid in comparison to natural highs. But we can do ourselves great harm with this dopamine abuse. Dopamine is key to wanting something, not necessarily liking it. You see this happen all the time. Addicts crave the hit and will do anything to fix it. But when it comes, they’re already looking forward to the next one.

Addiction isn’t just about dopamine though. Addiction is learnt as well. We develop bad habits, automatic responses and reflexes. These learnt habits stick with us for a long time and relapse is all too easy. Addictions are about being passive to our cravings, being weak in the face of temptation and easily succumbing to the lazy thought habits we have developed. Exercise is the opposite, however. Exercise is about action, strength of mind and clear thinking.

Exercise or Drugs?

There are two effective solutions to stress – exercise or drugs. Cigarettes and nicotine are a relaxant and a stimulant. But so too is exercise. Just 5 minutes intense exercise lowers stress and builds dopamine. You can replace cigarettes with exercise. One real side-effect of quitting cigarettes is that your focus will be impaired through withdrawal of the nicotine. Exercise increases your ability to focus, so combining quitting smoking with a new exercise regime will actually help you quit.

Exercise also counteracts the mind-dulling effects of drugs like morphine and prevents withdrawal symptoms. Marijuana and chocolate activate endocannabinoids, causing the mild euphoria we experience when using these drugs. But so too does exercise. During exercise anandamide is used to block pain, causing euphoria at high intensities – something called the ‘runner’s high’.

The Workout

  • If you do 50 minutes exercise at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate your level of anandamide doubles, meaning you’ll replace cravings for your addictions with the ‘runner’s high’.
  • Take up thrill-seeking. This will get your dopamine levels up and you’ll find you crave less from your addictions. Also the more thrills you get from exercise, the more you’ll pursue it.
  • Increase your self-control with a regimen of exercise. The discipline and healthy feel of exercise means you’ll also smoke less, drink less caffeine and alcohol, eat less junk food, do less impulse spending and procrastinate less.
  • As a bare minimum try to workout 30 minutes, 5 days a week. In an ideal world, workout everyday.
  • Don’t just pound the roads around your house. Vary your exercise.
  • Try something that demands your full attention, like almost any competitive sport or yoga.
  • Even 10 minutes of high intensity exercise will reduce cravings.
  • Skipping rope jumping is good for when you need a quick fix to knock craving on the head: 10 minutes feels like 30 minutes biking.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

Walking Home for Christmas: Heathrow to Cholsey

Yesterday morning, at about half seven, I walked out of Heathrow Terminal 5 heading for Cholsey, a proud village in Oxfordshire and my ancestral home. It was rather snowy, as some of you may have noticed. The longest walk I’d ever done before yesterday was about 16 miles. Now I was going for 38 miles – and the mathematicians among you will realise: that’s more than double.

At 8:59 p.m. I arrived in Cholsey.

You can read the minute-by-minute Twitter updates during the journey and admire some pretty pictures of me eating pizza, but first I’d just like to tell you why I did it.

I’m interested in travel. I’ve done a lot of aeroplane travel in my life, quite a bit either into or out of Heathrow. I’ve travelled many times from Cholsey to Heathrow and back. I’ve travelled even more times from Cholsey to London and back. I’ve done the journey by car, by train and by bus. But never by foot.

Travel by car, by train or by bus is forgettable, almost unconscious. A train journey we pass by reading a book or by staring vacantly out of the window. I’ve been gripped by a need to understand what it means to travel. Now I understand what that journey, Heathrow to Cholsey, means.

It means 13.5 hours of walking, trudging, shuffling, limping, tramping, traipsing, marching. It means never stopping, it means not letting the mind break down when the body does. It means country lanes, paths, bridleways, A-roads and B-roads. It means left-turns, right-turns and wrong-turns. It means foxes, crows, rabbits and cranes. It means walking at dawn, at day, at dusk, at sunset and at night. It means hills, valleys, woods, fields, rivers, streams, towns, villages and hamlets. It means West.

This journey is about understanding. I hope that my journey will help other people make their own journey and find their own understanding, just as Alastair Humphreys’ journey last year inspired mine. Next year, why not walk home for Christmas?

Tetris Life

I once spent a whole summer playing Tetris. I’d get up late and play, like, seven hours straight. And then, at night, when I slept, I’d see the blue and yellow and red and green blocks falling like alien snow, soft and easy in my dreams, falling into place with a touch of my mind.

But the summer ended and it was time to go back to school. Obviously I couldn’t play so much and anyway I met Susie soon after that. But that summer of Tetris has always stayed with me, as a metaphor, and I still get those dreams sometimes.

I figured life is just a game of Tetris, isn’t it? You twist and turn to fit in around other people, sometimes you slot into space perfectly; other times it’s awkward, nothing seems to fit and there’s a bit of a panic as the mistakes pile up. Sometimes it gets so awful that you’ve got no choice but to fail and start all over, building up from the bottom again.

The most important thing in Tetris, like in life, is to have a good strong foundation. An early mistake is always lurking there to trip you up. You’ve got to dig down and sort it out sooner or later or you won’t get anywhere. Sorting yourself out can take a long time, but it’s always possible.

The art of Tetris is to stay focussed on the current block, while keeping one eye on what’s coming next. But you’ll never really know the future, nothing beyond the next block. You have to deal with the blocks that life throws at you.

Me and Susie lasted a couple of terms, but then she decided that Adam fitted her much better. That was fine by me. She helped me get through a couple of levels and then I was ready for more, with a clear screen ahead of me.

As I get older, though, I find the blocks are falling fasting. It’s that much more difficult to manipulate them and get them slotting in the right way. Sometimes you just have to make do, cram them in any old how. There’s no point waiting for the right block, I don’t have time. Once, around level four, I waited almost the whole game for one of those long straight blocks. I could afford to do that, the game was still pretty slow and, when it came – boom – five rows down in one.

I don’t have that luxury any more. I’ve got to make do with whatever comes my way. Just keep going, line after line, level after level, until one day it all just falls apart.

The Taps

The taps have stopped dripping. Ever since the day my dad died, all the taps in my parents’ house have been dripping, like they were in mourning or something, dripping tears onto the porcelain of the sinks. The taps have been dripping for so long that the water-drops have grooved brown stains where they fall.

It would make sense that the taps were in mourning. My dad was a plumber and lived pretty much his whole life in this old house, ever since he bought it in the sixties with mum. He fixed up the central heating back in the seventies and he was always tinkering around with the pipes and the boiler. They must have missed him badly when he died.

Soon after the taps started dripping, mum called dad’s old mates in to sort it out. They tightened all the nuts in the taps – for free, they said, out of respect for my dad – and the dripping stopped. But as soon as they left, the taps started up dripping again. Mum decided to get used to it, she said it made up for the silence of my dad’s absence.

But now they’ve stopped, a year to the day that my dad died.

I suppose when you live somewhere for a long time, you and the plumbing start working in rhythm. The boiler warmly awakens you in the morning and heats the house for you in the evening. The water pipes expand and contract in diurnal exercise. The radiators flex into life in the winter and hibernate in the summer. There’s hot water just when you need it, cold when you don’t. The plumber playing on his pipes in symphony. And then, suddenly, only the taps drip-dripping.

I don’t live in a house. Not many people do these days. I live in a studio flat in the city. I moved in six months ago and I imagine I’ll move on again in another six months. I don’t think my studio flat will cry for me like this old house has for my father. It’s not like that anymore.

She Was a Pianist

She was a pianist. That’s what she always said anyway. Not once in the whole time I knew her did I ever see her play the piano, but that didn’t stop her. She was a pianist, end of story.

We’d been dating for about two months before I questioned her pianist credentials, but she just changed the subject. I didn’t press her at the time because she was very pretty and it’s not often that I have the chance to date pretty girls, so I just let it slide. What did it matter to me anyway, if she did or did not play the piano?

So things progressed, as they do. I’d go to her place, she’d come to mine, we’d meet in the park, we’d go to the mall. Then pretty soon it was her birthday. I was excited about what I’d got her: two tickets to go and see a concert, Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades. I’d phoned my mum and asked her for some advice and that’s what she’d said. It was going to be a surprise so I didn’t tell my girlfriend until the day of the concert. I was excited, she was excited, we were both excited. Then I told her and everything changed. She went deathly silent and I got a bit upset.

‘Aren’t you pleased? I thought you liked piano music – you’re always saying you’re a pianist for Christ’s sake! Let’s just go to the damned concert.’
She shook her head.
‘Why the hell not?’
‘I can’t.’
‘Why not? What’s wrong? Tell me.’
She looked very sad, ‘my brother was killed by a piano.’
I was shocked, ‘how?’
‘It fell on him’
‘While he was playing?’
‘We used to live in a big house with a grand staircase. One day, the piano fell down the stairs and crushed him. He was only nine.’
‘Jesus, that’s awful!’
She nodded.
‘So why do you call yourself a pianist?’
She looked ill. ‘It was me who pushed the piano down the stairs.’
‘Why on earth did you do that?’
‘I wanted to see what it sounded like.’

I didn’t see too much of her after she told me that story. The Nocturnes were good though.