Many people, and some researchers, might be surprised to learn how much physically active people tend to drink. In general, people who adopt one healthy habit, such as exercise, tend to practice other healthy habits, a phenomenon known as habit clustering. Fit and active people rarely smoke, for example, and tend to have a healthy diet. So, it may seem logical that people who exercise often drink alcohol sparingly.
But several studies over the past few years have found strong links between training and tipping. In one of the first, from 2001, researchers used responses from men and women to conclude that moderate drinkers, defined in this study as people who finished about one drink a day, were twice as likely than those who didn’t drink at all to exercise regularly. Later studies found similar patterns in college athletes, who drank significantly more than other college students, a population not famous for temperance.
In another revealing study, from 2015, 150 adults kept online diaries of when and how much they exercised and consumed alcohol for three weeks. The results showed that on the days when they exercised the most, they also tended to drink the most afterwards.
But these and other earlier studies, while consistently linking more physical activity and more alcohol, tended to be small or focused on young people, or relied on somewhat offhand reports of what people were telling researchers about their workouts and drinking, which can be notoriously unreliable. .
So for the new study, titled “Fit and Tipsy?” and recently published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers at the Cooper Institute in Dallas and other institutions turned to more objective data on tens of thousands of adults.
Study participants attended the clinic for annual check-ups and, as part of these check-ups, took treadmill tests of their aerobic capacity. They also completed detailed questionnaires about their exercise and alcohol consumption habits and whether they worried about their alcohol consumption. The researchers collected the records of 38,653 participants who were of legal age and reported drinking at least once a week. (The authors excluded teetotalers from the study mix because they wanted to compare light drinkers to heavy drinkers.) Then they calculated the numbers.
As in previous studies, the healthier people were, the more they tended to drink. The fittest women were about twice as likely to be moderate drinkers as women with low aerobic capacity. Moderate drinking meant that the women drank between four and seven glasses of beer, wine or spirits in a typical week. The fittest men were more than twice as likely to be moderate drinkers – up to 14 drinks a week – than the less fit men. The researchers took people’s reported exercise habits and adjusted for age and other factors that might have influenced the results, and the odds remained consistently higher.
Fit men and some women also had a slightly higher likelihood of being heavy drinkers – defined as having eight or more drinks a week for women and 15 or more for men – than their less fit peers. Interestingly, fit women who were heavy drinkers often reported concerns about their level of alcohol consumption, while fit men in this category rarely did.
What could these results mean for those of us who train regularly to try to stay in shape? Although they clearly show that physical activity and increased alcohol consumption go hand in hand, “most people probably do not associate physical activity and alcohol consumption as linked behaviors”, said Kerem Shuval, executive director of epidemiology at the Cooper Institute, who led the new study. .
So people who exercise should be aware of their alcohol intake, he said, and even track how often they drink each week.
Doctors and scientists can’t say for sure how many drinks might be too much for our health and well-being, and the total likely differs for each of us. But talk to your doctor or a counselor if your drinking worries you (or your spouse, friends, or workout partners).
“There are probably social aspects,” Shuval said, with teammates and practice groups bonding over beers or margaritas after a competition or practice. Many of us probably also put a health halo around our exercise, making us feel like our physical exertions warrant an extra cocktail — or three.
And, curiously, some animal studies show that exercise and alcohol light up parts of the brain linked to reward processing, suggesting that while each may be enjoyable on its own, doing both could be doubly appealing.
“We need a lot more research” into the reasons for the relationship, Shuval said. But for now,
it should be kept in mind, especially at this festive time of year, that our outings for running or cycling or our outings to the gym can influence the frequency and enthusiasm with which we toast to the new Year.