Exercise and Alcohol: Running on Empty Bottles
No, this isn't the beginning of a tired joke, it's an increasingly common real-life occurrence. And research shows that, once inside, those avid runners—and other frequent exercisers—tend to accrue bigger tabs than the average bar patron. Picture the Cheers gang clad in head-to-toe sweat-wicking spandex.
A 2009 study from the University of Miami found that the more people exercise, the more they drink—with the most active women consuming the highest amounts every month. It's a peculiar phenomenon that has had scientists scratching their heads since 1990, when research first pinpointed the alcohol-exercise connection. But they expected that, at some point, the script would be flipped—that the biggest boozers would exercise less. Never happened.
Instead, this landmark 2009 analysis of more than 230,000 men and women revealed that, on average, drinkers of both genders and all ages (not just wild twentysomethings) were 10 percent more likely to engage in vigorous exercise like running. Heavy drinkers exercised 10 minutes more each week than moderate drinkers and 20 minutes more than abstainers. An extra bender actually increased the number of minutes of total and vigorous exercise the men and women did that week.
"There's this misconception that heavy drinkers are exercise-averse couch potatoes," explains study author Michael T. French, Ph.D., a professor of health economics at the University of Miami. "That may be true in some cases, but that's certainly not what we've found."
This trend seems particularly pronounced in women—especially active, educated women, who, according to recent research from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, are drinking more than ever. In part, progress may be the root of this evil: With growing numbers of women in the workplace and other male-dominated arenas, it has become increasingly socially acceptable for women to go out and belly up to the bar alongside their male counterparts—and to overdo it.
Working Out to Work It Off
One simple theory scientists have to support the drinking-exercise connection is the morning-after phenomenon. In this case, the party girl who downs a few appletinis (and maybe some mozzarella sticks) feels the need to repent for those calories by banging out five or six miles the next morning.
"Women who consume alcohol could simply be exercising more to burn it off and avoid weight gain," says French. "Likewise, they may drink more simply because they can, as they know they're burning calories, so they're less worried about the weight gain."
But exercising to atone for the sins of the night before doesn't explain why someone would chase an indoor cycling class with a round of drinks, which also happens with staggering frequency. This, researchers say, could be the product of a "work hard, play hard" personality type. "There are people who are sensation seekers," says Ana M. Abrantes, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Brown University's Alpert Medical School. "They engage in activities that produce intense sensations and can be quickly bored by things that don't produce those feelings."
For others, it might be a matter of blowing off stress. Which may be why some women offset their tension with a boot-camp class, or by getting loaded, or both. "Exercising stimulates the release of serotonin, which is your natural antidepressant, as well as dopamine, which is the primary neurotransmitter in your brain's reward center. It makes us feel good," says brain chemistry researcher J. David Glass, Ph.D., a professor at Kent State University. Alcohol has a similar effect—hence, the buzz you get soothes your worries (if only temporarily).
Published: January 19, 2012 | By Selene Yeager
Women's Health Magazine