Alcohol & Exercise - A Tricky Balance
By: Meg Sharp, Fitness & Wellbeing Consultant, Cambridge Group of Clubs
“Fit and Tipsy” is the title to a Scientific Journal article very recently published in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. What a title! Extremely unusual coming from an academic paper and what a powerfully relevant topic!
While people who engage in a powerfully healthy behaviour – such as exercise – are more likely to exhibit other health related habits, the counterintuitive conclusion of this paper is that relationship doesn’t hold when it comes to alcohol consumption. After studying 38,653 apparently healthy North Americans – the researchers determined that individuals with higher fitness levels are far more likely to be moderate to heavy drinkers.
If the scientists were surprised by the results, I was not. I’ve been a Personal Trainer for more than 30 years. Working with and among exceptionally fit, driven individuals. The likes of whom are reading this right now. The majority of whom enjoy moderate to heavy alcohol consumption on a regular basis. With moderate consumption defined as 3-7 standard drinks per week for women and 3-14 for men. (A “Standard” glass of wine for example is 5 ounces. I thought wine only came in 6 or 9 ounce pours?)
So. Where do we go from here?
If you drink regularly and have had periods of time when you reduce or stop consumption entirely, you very likely have experienced how much better you feel. You likely note you sleep better, eat better, lift better, think better… And, perhaps, you then revert to your prior drinking habits, and my goodness doesn’t that glass of wine or cold beer taste divine.
Is there a balance to be found? Everyone is different. This is particularly true with alcohol consumption where tolerances, tastes, and habits are peppered throughout with genetic, environmental, and neurophysiological variables.
And I’m no expert. But I have a number of insights and ideas that I have found both interesting and helpful. Let’s look at a few truths about alcohol and exercise. And a few strategies for better choreographing a, sometimes, tricky dance.
People who exercise on a regular basis may metabolize alcohol more effectively than their sedentary counterparts. There’s evidence to suggest that aerobic exercise may accelerate ethanol metabolism in the liver as well as reduce oxidative damage to the tissue. Also, increasing lean tissue will increase your tolerance – as alcohol is more soluble in water vs fat – and muscle is packed with water.
Women tend to carry less muscle compared to men of the same weight, and so will typically have a lower tolerance. Women have almost no alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) in their stomachs and less active ADH in their livers. This collectively means women will feel the effects of alcohol much faster and will not metabolize it as efficiently.
Alcohol reduces the quantity and quality of our sleep. It takes 4-6+ hours for alcohol to clear our system, and while the body is metabolizing the alcohol, we are effectively sedated – not sleeping – and we miss out on all those restorative benefits of deep sleep that are huge during the first half of the night. After the alcohol is cleared – our sleep becomes fragmented. We may not remember this – but we wake far more often relative to a night where we had nothing to drink – and are thus robbed of more deep sleep and even much of our REM sleep. We wake feeling groggy, foggy, irritable... Latent effects of the alcohol being a part of this – and lack of sleep contributing big time.
This also means the next day we crave. Caffeine and carbohydrates. And more rest.
Be aware and prepare for these cravings. GET YOUR WORKOUT IN. Even though you may not feel like it and likely won’t perform as well (moderate drinking may impair aerobic capacity by as much as 11.4% and as both the alcohol and lack of sleep inhibit your muscle’s ability to recover and rebuild – you likely won’t be able to lift as much).
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, releases endorphins, improves your mood, and encourages you to drink more water. You are likely to feel quite a bit better and are less likely to need that second cup of coffee (which, let’s face it, your stomach lining could do without). Lifting weights is protein sparing – helping maintain that muscle tissue you have and encouraging better rebuilding the next night – assuming you choose to have a night without a drink. Furthermore, your workout will increase levels of adenosine in your system which, in turn, will increase your sleep pressure for the upcoming night. Again – assuming you skip the drinks – you are prepping yourself to be beautifully tired and will likely enjoy a very high quality, deep restorative sleep. For what it’s worth, I personally find exercising outside, in a manner that elevates my heart rate, to be particularly beneficial.
I’ve heard it recommended that one drink with lunch instead of dinner – in order to clear the alcohol from the system before bedtime. It’s a clever idea – but may not be practical for many.
What’s the take home here?
Life is long and meant to be enjoyed. What that means in terms of whether or not and how much alcohol you consume is not for me to state.
Acknowledge the impact alcohol consumption has on you and your body. Recognize that moderation will be beneficial. And being strategic about amounts, timing, and even types of consumption can actually be transformative.
Try these ideas on for size:
Choose nights of the week when you consume zero alcohol. Know and celebrate that your sleep will be more restorative, your muscles will recover better, your metabolism will rev back up and you will feel better the next morning. If you can commit to having MORE nights of the week without alcohol (4 or more out of 7), even better.
On the nights you do drink, try to cut back or stop entirely earlier in the evening. Enjoy a glass of wine before dinner. A few with dinner, and then switch to water.
Start your happy hour with a mocktail or non-alcoholic beer.
Choose your favourite drink. Can you stick to just one type? Beer only? Wine only? We know that faced with a buffet, people will eat more. The same is true with booze. The less variation we introduce, the less we tend to drink.
Continue to exercise. Daily if possible. 150 minutes of moderate activity per week, or 75 minutes of intense activity per week are the recommendations. If you can fit it more, bravo. Your body and brain will thank you for it. If you can fit in both cardio and strength training – bravo again.
Speak to your healthcare provider about magnesium supplementation. Magnesium may help people feel more relaxed, less anxious, and may reduce cravings for a night cap. As alcohol depletes the body of magnesium, supplementation can help restore liver function and assist with brain cell regeneration.
Be kind to yourself. While some people are far better with an all or nothing mindset, many find black and white thinking doesn’t support success. If you drink too much tonight, all is not lost. Get up and sweat. And look forward to Sunday night when you will give your body a chance to recharge. If you are trying to change, remember positive messages are more powerful than negative ones. Stay optimistic. Remain patient. Celebrate the successes. Look carefully at them, put them behind you, and keep moving forward.
If you believe you or someone you care about has a problem with alcohol or drugs, please connect with a professional to help you determine helpful next steps.
Shuval K., et al. 2022. Fit and tipsy? The interrelationship between cardiorespiratory fitness and alcohol consumption and dependance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. Jan 1;54(1): 113-119.
El-Sayed M.S., et al. 2005. Interaction between alcohol and exercise: Physiological and haematological implications. Sports Med. 35(3): 257-69.
Cederbaum A.I. 2012. Alcohol metabolism. Clin Liver Dis. Nov: 16(4): 667-685.