Prior research has already found that depressed smokers need to step outside for a smoke twice as often as mentally healthy smokers. But for as difficult as maintaining the habit may be, quitting it is even harder. A recent joint study finds exercise may be an all-natural aid in helping people achieve their cessation goals.

Smoking in the U.S. is on the decline. Depression, however, is by many accounts on the way up. Mental health is only just beginning to emerge as a genuine component of a person’s overall health. Even less understood is the relationship between the two. The new research sheds an important light on the way physical health can suffer from mental disorder — Major Depressive Disorder, specifically, in this case.

“Our hope is that this study will continue to sensitize researchers and clinicians on the promising role of exercise in the treatment of both depression and smoking cessation,” said lead author Paquito Bernard in a statement.

Bernard and his colleagues tracked a group of participants for 18 months as they either completed a basic workout plan, which included moderate activities like long walks, or stuck to their normal habits and methods. Those that had exercised were far more likely to quit at the end of the 18 months. Researchers chalked up the outcome to reduced withdrawal symptoms following a workout.

The team never scanned the subjects’ brains, but science has already shown time and time again that exercise releases an ocean of chemicals into your brain that make you feel good. Sure, you’re exhausted and feel like your lungs could quit on you at any moment. But the euphoria that sets in after you’ve caught your breath is unmatched — and it’s no accident. Exercise also helps to promote creativity in the brain and preserve the organ’s health into old age.

The latest research also helps to inform depression research. In 2010, Americans spent more than $11 billion on antidepressants. While these medications help to curb symptoms, they don’t always attack the root cause of a person’s depression. Unfortunately, says study co-author Grégory Moullec, the evidence still isn’t strong enough to convince policymakers to relax their medication campaigns.

“There is still skepticism about exercise compared to pharmacological strategies,” he said. “But if we continue to conduct ambitious trials, using high-standard methodology, we will get to know which interventions are the most effective of all.” Ultimately, the research is what will bore out the truth, he adds. Science informs political discussion only insofar as the right voice gets to announce the findings. “The review should be seen as a call to arms,” Moullec said.

Source: Bernard P, Ninot G, Moullec G, et al. Smoking Cessation, Depression, and Exercise: Empirical Evidence, Clinical Needs, and Mechanisms. Nicotine and Tobacco Research. 2013.