Until his untimely death from kidney failure in 2002, Tomás Chavez was a fixture on the Ann Arbor fitness scene. At various times over the years, I took classes in floor aerobics, step aerobics, and ballroom dancing with Tomás at the local gym. My husband gamely joined me in the ballroom dance classes, despite being, in his own words, “dance-impaired” (hard to explain when he’s an expert skier, but that’s another story!). We weren’t very good at ballroom dancing; we repeated the beginner class, then started intermediate and after the first night dropped back to the beginner class again. But my husband didn’t really mind because Tomás made it so much fun. We joked that we could dance at anyone’s wedding so long as we could bring along Tomás to call out the next move; we agreed that it took three to tango – and the third one had to be Tomás.
Tomás was a true small-d democrat when it came to fitness: Fitness is for everyone. One of his favorite sayings was, “If you can walk, you can dance.” Though my husband might demur, I think Tomás would readily have classified his efforts as “dancing.” It was great if you increased in proficiency over time but it didn’t really matter if you didn’t, so long as you just kept moving.
Tomás made aerobics fun by cracking a steady stream of little jokes (often ever-so-slightly risqué), by making up new moves and naming them after the students (he knew everyone’s name), by gradually increasing the complexity of the routine, and by praising even small improvements. He knew that the secret of fitness was to find ways to make it fun. He understood that if it’s fun, you’ll keep doing it.
If you can walk, you can dance. If you can do either, you can burn calories. If you can burn calories, you can manage your weight when you stop smoking. The trick is to find something you enjoy doing. Do you prefer to exercise alone, with a friend, or in a class? Indoors or out? In front of the TV or in silence? Experiment till you find a form of physical activity you like well enough to keep doing it. And if you are such a diehard exerphobe that you truly can’t identify any activity you enjoy, then find yourself a Tomás who will make the time fly by so fast your workout will be over before you even realize you’ve been exercising!
No one on Facebook could have missed it – a rash of status reports saying “black,” “beige,” “nude,” “white (ho-hum),” and even “green with pink rosebuds.” “Not telling,” said one friend.
What was that about? Well, somebody somewhere had fired off a message to a group of women friends asking them to post the color of their bra in their status box, all in the name of breast cancer awareness and support for medical research, and the whole thing went viral.
How this might have raised breast cancer awareness or promoted medical research – who knows? The point is, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of women showed they were ready and willing to stand up and be counted. And many show it on an ongoing basis, in far more tangible ways, by paying a surcharge on pink-ribbon postage stamps and other items to help fund breast cancer research.
Not for one second do I begrudge the advocates of breast cancer research their success in gaining support for their cause. Like most, I have seen in my own circle of friends the suffering and devastation that breast cancer can cause in the lives of women.
But did you know that lung cancer, not breast cancer, is the leading cause of cancer death in women? Nearly twice as many women die from lung cancer as from breast cancer.
We can stop this epidemic – one woman at a time. Lung cancer deaths among women have increased by 600 percent since 1950, closely tracking the increase in smoking among women a few decades earlier. What goes up can come down. But despite improvements in survival rates, don’t look for advances in biomedical research to solve the problem. The real answer lies in prevention – by discouraging girls from starting to smoke and by encouraging women who already smoke to quit and stay quit.
For many women, cigarettes are a way of controlling weight and staving off depression. My goal, in writing Life After Cigarettes, was to help you identify better ways to look and feel great, not to try to scare you into quitting. But occasionally it’s salutary to pause and reflect on the health risks the tobacco industry has inflicted on us. The next time you see the ubiquitous pink ribbon promoting breast cancer awareness, imagine it paired with a brown tobacco-awareness ribbon and remember the twin scourges these symbols represent.
The holidays are history, the days are short, the nights are long, and in many parts of the country the weather is cold and forbidding. If just the thought of all this makes you want to hibernate until Spring, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the winter blues.
“Hibernate” is the right word. Although the causes of SAD are not fully understood, the condition appears to be associated with disruptions in the daily rhythms of melatonin, a compound secreted by the pineal gland and involved in sleep-induction. In ground squirrels and other hibernating animals, patterns of melatonin release change dramatically during the low-light months, contributing to a state of suspended animation during which the animal conserves energy by reducing body temperature and slowly metabolizing stored body fat. Humans don’t hibernate, but some of us produce enough melatonin, or produce it at the wrong times, to make us sleepy and lethargic during the winter months. Other symptoms of full-blown SAD include depression, anxiety, hopelessness, loss of interest in things that usually give you pleasure, social withdrawal, carbohydrate craving, weight gain, and difficulty concentrating.
If you’re a smoker or even an ex-smoker, all this may make you feel like lighting up. As I point out in Chapter 6 of Life After Cigarettes, a better strategy is to add light to your life. If a tropical vacation isn’t in the cards, buy a bright full-spectrum lamp (“light box”) and spend 30-60 minutes under it while you read the morning paper or answer your e-mail. This blocks melatonin secretion and is the standard first-line treatment for SAD. And whenever you’re tempted to smoke to relieve the symptoms of SAD, give yourself an extra dose of bright light therapy. Although I don’t know of any scientific studies to support this recommendation – the smoking-SAD connection has received surprisingly little attention by researchers – it makes a lot of sense to me and is definitely worth a try.
SAD is four times as common among women as among men, and many more have mild, subclincal cases of the disorder. No surprises here, since women are more prone to most forms of depression than men. If your winter blues are seriously interfering with your ability to function in your daily work or family life and don’t respond to phototherapy, seek professional help. Treatment options may include cognitive-behavioral therapy, carefully timed administration of melationin to re-regulate circadian rhythms, and antidepressants. “Treating” SAD by smoking a cigarette is definitely a case of the cure being worse than the disease.
For more information about light boxes, and about SAD in general, visit
As always, I invite you to share your experience with SAD and approaches you have used to relieve its symptoms with the readers of this blog.
For many, the beginning of a new year (and in this case a new decade!) is an occasion for starting afresh, for launching new projects, for embracing new approaches to healthful living.
If you’re a woman who smokes or has recently quit, and especially if you’re one who cares passionately about looking and feeling your best, I hope it’s your time to become – not just an ex-smoker, someone who has subtracted tobacco from her life, but truly a nonsmoker, someone who has figured out how to use the process of quitting as a springboard to achieving higher levels of comfort, confidence, and awareness.
In my new book, Life After Cigarettes: Why Women Smoke and How to Quit, Look Great and Manage your Weight, I call this “the chic of quitting.” Drawing on my twenty-plus years as Director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan, I have done my best to translate my own findings and those of others into words that will both teach and inspire you to achieve this goal.
My own New Year’s project is this blog. I will use it to communicate the latest research findings and to offer new suggestions for managing your weight, feeling good, and looking great. I hope you will share your journey with me and with others traveling the same path. I look forward to reading about your successes and setbacks, and about your discoveries along the way.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.