People who exercise regularly and are aerobically fit tend to guzzle a surprising amount of alcohol, according to a new study, timed well for the holidays, of the interplay between fitness, exercise and drinking. The study, which involved more than 40,000 American adults, finds that active, physically fit men and women are more than twice as likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers as people who are out of shape. The results add to the mounting evidence from previous studies — and many of our bar tabs — that exercise and alcohol often go hand-in-hand, with implications for the health effects of each.
Many people, and some researchers, may be surprised to learn how many physically active people tend to drink. In general, people who adopt a healthy habit, such as exercising, tend to adopt other beneficial habits, a phenomenon known as habit clustering. For example, fit, active people rarely smoke and tend to eat healthily. So it seems logical that people who exercise a lot drink alcohol in moderation.
But multiple studies in recent years have found close links between exercise and tipping. In one of the first, in 2001, researchers used survey responses from American men and women to conclude that moderate drinkers, defined in that study as people who drank about one drink a day, were twice as likely as those who didn’t drink. not at all to exercise regularly. Subsequent studies found similar patterns in college athletes, who drank significantly more than other colleagues, a population not known for sobriety.
In another revealing 2015 study, 150 adults kept online diaries for three weeks about when and how much they exercised and consumed alcohol. The results showed that on the days they exercised the most, they drank the most afterwards.
But this and other previous studies, which consistently linked increased physical activity and increased drinking, tended to be small or focused on young people, or relied on somewhat casual reports of what people told researchers about their workouts and alcohol consumption, which can be notoriously unreliable. are .
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 American adults. They were all part of the large and ongoing Cooper Center Longitudinal Study, which is looking at cardiovascular health and its relationship to various behavioral factors and other medical conditions.
Study participants visited the Cooper Clinic in Texas for annual checkups, and as part of those exams, they completed treadmill tests of their aerobic fitness. They also completed extensive questionnaires about their exercise and drinking habits and whether they were concerned about their alcohol use. The researchers collected records for 38,653 participants who were of legal age and reported drinking at least once a week. (The authors excluded abstainers from the study mix because they wanted to compare light drinkers with heavier drinkers.) Then they made numbers.
As in previous studies, the fitter people were, the more likely they were to drink. The strongest women were about twice as likely to be moderate drinkers as women with low aerobic capacities. Moderate drinking meant that the women drank between four and seven glasses of beer, wine or spirits per week. The fittest men were more than twice as likely to be moderate drinkers — up to 14 drinks a week — than men who were less fit. The researchers took into account people’s reported exercise habits and adjusted for age and other factors that could have influenced the results, and the odds remained consistently higher.
Fit men and some women were also slightly more likely to be heavy drinkers — defined as eight or more weekly drinks for women and 15 or more for men — than their less-fit peers. Interestingly, fit women who were heavy drinkers tended to be concerned about their alcohol consumption, while fit men in that category rarely did.
What could these results mean for those of us who exercise regularly to stay in shape? While they clearly show that fitness and drinking more go hand in hand, “most people probably don’t associate physical activity and alcohol use as linked behaviors,” said Kerem Shuval, the Cooper Institute’s executive director of epidemiology, who led the new study. . So, people who exercise should be aware of their alcohol consumption, he said, and even keep a record of how often they drink each week.
Doctors and scientists cannot say for sure how many drinks are too much for our health and well-being, and the total probably differs for each of us. But talk to your doctor or a counselor if you’re concerned about your alcohol use (or if you’re concerned about your spouse, friends, or exercise partners).
Of course, this research has limits. It mainly involved affluent, white Americans, and it only showed an association between fitness and alcohol consumption, not that one causes the other. It also can’t tell us why working up a sweat could lead to excessive drinking, or vice versa.
“There are probably social aspects,” said Dr. Shuval, with teammates and training groups who bonded over beer or margaritas after a game or practice. Many of us also probably place a health halo around our exercise, making us feel our physical exertion warrants an extra cocktail — or three. And, intriguingly, some animal studies show that both exercise and alcohol lighten parts of the brain associated with reward processing, suggesting that while each can be pleasurable on its own, both can be twice as appealing.
“We need a lot more research” into the reasons for the relationship. said Dr. Shuval. But for now, it’s worth bearing in mind, especially at this festive time of year, that our running or cycling outings or trips to the gym can affect how often and how excited we toast to the New Year. .