Drinking more alcohol is associated with fitness

The versatile New Zealander Rod Dixon, whose range extended from an Olympic medal in the 1,500 metres to a triumph in the New York City Marathon, is usually credited with my second-favorite running T-shirt quote: “All I want to do is drink beer and train like an animal.” (My personal favourite comes from Noureddine Morceli: “When I race, my head is full of doubts.”) Who will come in second place? “Who will come in third?”) I’m not a big beer drinker, but there’s something alluring about Dixon’s ambitions in their simplicity—something that, it turns out, a lot of runners share.

Many studies throughout the years have found that those who exercise a lot also drink a lot more. This is rather surprising because healthy and unhealthy behaviours tend to cluster together: exercise enthusiasts, for example, are less likely to smoke but more likely to eat a lot of greens. Alcohol is difficult to categorise as either “healthy” or “unhealthy” because there is (much contested) evidence indicating light or moderate drinking may have some health benefits. However, I don’t believe Dixon’s preference for beer sprang from a desire to lower his blood pressure.

A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by a research team at the Cooper Institute in Dallas sheds new light on the exercise-alcohol connection. Many past studies have focused on competitive athletes, particularly college teams, where increased alcohol intake may reflect frat-like social pressures rather than a natural urge to drink. However, the new study examines data from 38,000 healthy adults aged 20 to 86 who underwent preventative testing at the Cooper Clinic, and it, too, discovers a strong correlation between exercise and alcohol consumption.

A treadmill test to exhaustion was used to determine the subjects’ cardiorespiratory fitness (i.e. VO2 max). They were separated into five equal groups based on their age and sex-adjusted scores, with the lowest group being classed as low fitness, the next two as moderate fitness, and the highest two being categorised as high fitness. Light drinkers consumed three or less drinks per week; moderate drinkers consumed seven or more drinks per week; and strong drinkers consumed more than that.

The key finding was that those who were moderately and highly fit were considerably more likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers than those who were less fit. Being physically fit more than doubled the chances of being a moderate or heavy drinker in women. It elevated the odds by 63 percent for men. For the most part, neither college rowdies nor star athletes were among the subjects. The average age was 45.9, and a VO2 max of 46.9 ml/kg/min was required for high fitness in males, which is good but not enough to win races. Although VO2 max and exercise habits aren’t perfectly connected because VO2 max is influenced by genetics, a sub-analysis utilising the respondents’ self-reported workout habits rather than VO2 max results indicated a similar relationship.

The intriguing topic is why there is a link between exercise and alcohol consumption. The authors of the paper tentatively imply that the former may trigger the latter, possibly due to a psychological phenomena known as the licencing effect, in which you reward yourself for doing something “good” by permitting yourself to do something “bad.” (For the record, this is one of the reasons I’m wary about multivitamins as a preventative measure against dietary gaps: taking a vitamin unconsciously gives you permission to fill those gaps.) There is some evidence that people drink more on days when they have done more activity than normal.

However, another school of thought contends that personality factors influence both exercise and alcohol consumption. In a 2014 study led by University of Houston professor Leigh Leasure, higher levels of sensation-seeking were connected to both exercise and drinking behavior—a trait that is controlled by how your brain’s reward circuitry processes dopamine. Work hard-play hard, celebration, body image, and guilt are four separate motives for combining exercise and drinking, according to Leasure and her colleagues. Exercise leads to drinking in the first two, while drinking leads to exercise in the latter two.

So, does running make you an alcoholic or keep you from being an alcoholic? It’s possible to argue either way: that exercise reinforces the reward-seeking behaviour that leads to binge drinking, or that it competes with and replaces the desire to drink. There are numerous stories online of former addicts who turned to ultrarunning and credit it with saving their lives.

Surprisingly, the Cooper Clinic study also gave an alcohol dependence assessment to its participants. Based on their responses to questions on whether they were trying to minimise their drinking, becoming bothered by criticism about it, feeling guilty about it, or drinking first thing in the morning, 13 percent of the subjects fulfilled the threshold for alcohol dependence. The fittest were the least likely to show signs of dependence among heavy-drinking men (but not women). This is consistent with the theory that their exercise habits are filling part of the psychic space that alcohol would otherwise occupy.

This is certainly a topic that will defy sweeping generalisations and straightforward realities. Individual personality features and social circumstances play a role in modulating the relationships between exercise and alcohol, according to Leasure’s research. Those links are worth remembering for those of us who have a strong desire for sensation—and when in doubt, keep training like an animal.

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