Does Exercise Affect our Alcohol Consumption?

A recent study reveals a curious correlation between regular exercise and alcohol consumption. With a broad sample of over 40,000 adults, the study indicates that those who are physically active and fit are over twice as likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers as those who are less active or healthy. These findings supplement an already growing body of evidence suggesting that the habits of exercising and drinking alcohol often coincide, impacting health outcomes in various ways.

The link between physical activity and alcohol intake may raise eyebrows, as one might expect those engaged in one healthy behaviour, like exercising regularly, to be inclined towards other health-conscious habits, a concept referred to as habit clustering. As a rule, those who maintain an active lifestyle often avoid habits like smoking and are likely to follow a healthy diet. It won’t be unreasonable to assume that those who exercise regularly would limit their alcohol intake.

Numerous studies conducted over the years have indicated a strong connection between exercising and drinking. In a pioneering study 2001, researchers found, through survey responses from American adults, that those classified as moderate drinkers (consuming approximately one drink per day) were twice as likely to exercise regularly compared to non-drinkers. Subsequent studies reported similar trends among college athletes, who were found to drink significantly more than their non-athlete peers, a group not typically known for their restraint.

In a noteworthy 2015 study, 150 adults maintained online logs documenting their exercise and alcohol consumption over three weeks. The results highlighted that they were likely to consume more alcohol on the days they exercised the most.

However, previous studies, despite consistently illustrating a correlation between increased physical activity and alcohol consumption, were often limited in scale, focused on younger demographics, or relied on self-reported data about workouts and alcohol intake, which can often be inaccurate.

In a new study, aptly named “Fit and Tipsy?” and recently published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise journal, researchers from The Cooper Institute in Dallas and other institutions examined more concrete data from tens of thousands of American adults. All participants participated in the comprehensive and ongoing Cooper Centre Longitudinal Study, which examines the relationship between cardiovascular health and various behavioural and medical factors.

It’s common for individuals not to associate physical activity with alcohol consumption as interconnected behaviours.

Study participants visited the Cooper Clinic in Texas for annual health checkups. They completed treadmill tests to assess their aerobic fitness during these checkups. They filled out detailed questionnaires about their exercise and drinking patterns and concerns they might have regarding their alcohol consumption. The researchers compiled records for 38,653 participants, all of legal drinking age, who reported drinking at least once per week. The study purposefully excluded non-drinkers, as the researchers aimed to compare light drinkers with heavier drinkers. The researchers then proceeded to analyze the collected data.

In alignment with previous studies, the latest research found that the more physically fit individuals were, the more they tended to consume alcohol. The most physically fit women were roughly twice as likely to drink as women with lower aerobic capacities. Moderate drinking for these women was defined as consuming between four and seven alcoholic beverages in a typical week, including beer, wine, or spirits. Similarly, the most physically fit men were more than double the chance to be moderate drinkers, consuming up to 14 drinks per week, compared to less fit men. The probability remained notably higher after accounting for reported exercise habits, age, and other potential influencing factors.

Additionally, physically fit men and some women had a marginally higher chance of being heavy drinkers, defined as eight or more drinks a week for women and fifteen or more for men, compared to their less fit counterparts. Interestingly, among the physically fit women classified as heavy drinkers, there were frequent reports of concern about their alcohol consumption levels. However, physically fit men in the same category seldom expressed such concerns.

What do these findings mean for those who regularly exercise to maintain fitness? Although the results demonstrate a clear association between higher levels of fitness and increased alcohol consumption, most people likely don’t perceive physical activity and alcohol consumption as interconnected behaviours, according to Kerem Shuval, director of epidemiology at the Cooper Institute, who spearheaded the new study. Therefore, individuals who exercise should be conscious of their alcohol consumption, monitoring their frequency of drinking each week.

While medical professionals and researchers cannot definitively state the number of drinks that might pose a risk to health and wellbeing, as this likely varies, it is suggested that you discuss concerns about drinking with a doctor or counsellor, particularly if your alcohol consumption worries you or those around you, including your spouse, friends, or workout partners.

However, this study does have its limitations. It primarily includes affluent white Americans and only illustrates a correlation between fitness and alcohol intake rather than establishing a causal relationship. Furthermore, it doesn’t provide insight into why an increase in physical exertion might lead to increased alcohol consumption or the other way around.

“There are likely social elements involved,” Shuval suggested, indicating that workout groups or teammates may enjoy socializing over a beer or a margarita after a workout or competition. Many individuals also view regular exercise as a justification for indulging in an additional cocktail. Interestingly, some animal studies have indicated that exercise and alcohol stimulate the brain’s reward-processing regions, suggesting that combining both activities could be doubly appealing, even though each individual can provide pleasure.

More research is wanted to understand the reasons for this relationship, according to Shuval. However, it’s crucial to remember, particularly during the festive season, that our regular exercise routines, such as running, cycling, or gym sessions, could influence the frequency and fervour of our celebratory toasts to the new year.