Study of the day: Exercise encourages drinking and that's probably okay

Yet another of those studies that you can use to reaffirm the life choices you already make.

Living in the southern hemisphere means that the period of our greatest excess (Xmas, New Years, etc) coincides with the period in which we wear the fewest clothes (summer, duh). So, for many, December in New Zealand means an increase in alcohol intake and an uptick in exercise as we try and get fit and healthy for that beach holiday we’ve been looking forward to.

But, it turns out exercise and alcohol consumption are actually more closely linked than previously thought.

A new study from Pennsylvania State University monitored 150 adult men and women aged 18 to 75. Each participant was given a smartphone to record their daily alcohol intake and exercise for 21 days, three times in one year.

Previous studies showed that moderate drinkers (about a drink a day on average) are about twice as likely to exercise than those that abstain. But these studies only looked at whether people who drank also exercised, they didn’t have anything to say about the relationship between exercise and alcohol.

But, when the data was collated from the 150 participants at Penn State, it showed not only that people that drink are more likely to exercise, but a correlation between exercising and drinking on the same day. Also, when a person exercised more than they usually do, they were even more likely to drink.These findings were consistent between gender, age, and season.

The study didn’t look at why people who exercise are more likely to drink (I can think of a few reasons through), but a review of previous studies looking at alcohol and exercise, published in the Frontiers in Psychiatry journal, tests on lab rats show that both exercise and alcohol increase activity in parts of the brain related to signalling rewards. And when the two are done in proximity to one another, the neurological effect appears to increase exponentially, so rats wanted both exercise and alcohol more than they wanted either one by itself.

While tests on rats can never be sure to correspond to humans, Dr J Leigh Leasure, an associate professor at the University of Houston, told the New York Times that it’s likely that something similar is happening in humans who exercise then drink – their work out makes them feel good and when that high starts to fade, they look to continue the good times with some responsibly moderate drinking.

But there are other factors at play in the human psyche. It could be that people that drink are more conscious of the calories they are imbibing and therefore engage in exercise to balance their lifestyle. There’s a social aspect to many exercise rituals – sports teams get a beer together after a game, cyclists crowd around the outside tables of the local bar in their ad-covered lycra.

Thankfully, the research doesn’t suggest that any of this is really a problem. Exercise seems to encourage moderate drinking, not binge drinking. And when an already moderate drinker starts exercise, their unlikely to increase their drinking on account of the exercise.

So when you get home from your evening run and suddenly feel like a cold beer or a Long Island Ice Tea, now you know.

Images by Rupal Hira