Do Drinkers Exercise More Than Their Sober Peers?

Those who drink more may also be more likely to exercise, new research suggests.

August 30, 2009, 12:57 PM

Aug. 31, 2009— -- While some runners load up on carbohydrates before a race to boost their endurance, members of the Boston Hash League, a self-defined "drinking club with a running problem," swap that pre-race bowl of pasta for a mid-race six-pack.

"The group runs once a week and on full moon nights at various locations in and around Boston, [stopping] once or twice for a 'beer check,'" says member Keith Fine, of Quincy, Mass. He adds that at the end of the run, the entire group meets at a bar or restaurant to continue the drinking in earnest.

Since its creation in 1938, the philosophy of this band of merry runners is to "promote physical fitness," "get rid of weekend hangovers" and "acquire a thirst and satisfy it in beer," according to their Web site,

"I Googled running clubs when I moved back to Boston after grad school in Florida," Fine said. "I ran with a few different ones, but the Hash was the most fun."

This marriage of drink and exercise may sound bizarre, and pairing the two activities so closely is not advisable and certainly not the norm for most exercisers.

However, new research suggests that more moderate drinking and regular exercise may go hand in hand more often than we think.

Past research shows that certain unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking and physical inactivity, often go together. But new research out of the University of Miami suggests alcohol consumption may be linked with at least one healthy behavior: physical activity. Specifically, researchers found that those who reported drinking more alcohol were also more likely to report exercising more.

Lead author Michael French, a professor of sociology, economics, epidemiology and public health, and colleagues, analyzed survey data on exercise and alcohol use from over 200,000 Americans. What they found was that not only were abstainers less likely to exercise, but light drinkers tended to exercise less than moderate or heavy drinkers.

Drinking Tied to Exercise, Researchers Say

Women who reported drinking more than 45 drinks in the past month -- a behavior that pushed them into the category of "heavy drinkers" -- exercised 14 more minutes per week on average than those light drinkers who drank one to 14 drinks in the month. These heavy drinkers also reported exercising on average 20 minutes more than those who abstained from alcohol altogether.

What's more, drinkers were 10 percent more likely than their sober peers to exercise vigorously in any given week.

The results were similar for men, with heavy drinkers -- those who threw back 75 drinks per month -- exercising 21 minutes more per week than light drinkers (who only consumed one to 29 drinks per month) and 23 minutes more than abstainers.

Dr. David Baron, chief of staff at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, commented that "we normally would associate a 'healthier lifestyle' with both exercise and moderation in alcohol consumption.

"[The results are] not what people would have expected," he said.

So, are barflies necessarily gym rats?

"Not really," French said. "Drinking by itself is not going to lead to more exercise."

He added that the researchers "tried to be upfront and cautious" in reporting the findings because, while they suggest a strong association between alcohol and exercise, they cannot explain why these oddly paired behaviors seem to go together.

Baron agreed. "The link, whatever it is, remains somewhat of a mystery."

Still, the researchers offered some possible explanations for the observed trend:

Calorie Compensation

For the calorie-conscious, drinking more can directly lead to exercise. Given that the average alcoholic beverage is over 100 calories a pop, those who are watching their waistlines may use exercise as a way to assuage the guilt of their indulgences and head off extra pounds at the pass.

Peter Lalish, guitarist for the Brooklyn-based band Elizabeth and the Catapult, said that being on tour with the band "lends itself to a lot more drinking, and then we're on a bus for 10 hours at a time, so when we can, we tend to do a lot of group exercise."

Social Aspects of Drinking, Exercise May Be Intertwined

He says that after a late night at a bar, the band will often do yoga, go biking, or hit the hotel gym as a group and "that's a conscious effort to counteract the drinking."

Work(out) Hard, Play Harder

It could be that certain personality types ascribe to a kind of work hard/play hard philosophy that makes them more likely to do hardcore sports like rock climbing or marathon running and to party hard at the bar afterwards.

Perhaps "people who spend more time exercising for the endorphin rush may also seek the buzz from excess alcohol consumption," says Dr. John Higgins, exercise physiologist at the University of Texas.

Dr. Carl Lavie, director of the Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans, has run road races for 30 years and noted that "from speaking with numerous fellow runners over the years, my impression is that many heavy exercisers also drink a fair amount of alcohol, often with at least occasional bingeing."

Binge drinking -- defined as more than five drinks in one occasion -- was also associated with more physical activity in the survey; women who had at least one episode of binge drinking per week exercised for 17 more minutes in a typical week than those who had not. Men who binged upped their total exercise by 13 minutes.

Don't Pass Me the Ball, Pass Me a Beer

The Boston Hashers are an extreme example of another explanation mentioned in the paper -- the odd, yet some say amusing, marriage of recreational activities and recreational drinking.

"Both exercise and drinking are aspects of sociability," says Philip Cook, a professor of public policy studies at Duke University. He said that from a men's baseball league that shares a pint at the neighborhood bar afterwards to beer-chugging running clubs, there's no lack of examples of the two avocations going together.

If hashing is not your thing, you could join Cambridge's Amateur Wiffle ball Enthusiasts, who "hydrate" with "pepped-up" Gatorade in between innings, when on the bench, even while playing outfield.

Balancing Exercise and Alcohol

"We're not very good; the bases are almost never loaded, but at least we are," says one member who wished to remain nameless.

While drunken sports are not exactly the poster child of responsible, moderate drinking, French does feel that, on the whole, these findings suggest that people may be striking a balance between their unhealthy and healthy habits.

"In many circles, alcohol use has a bad reputation," he said. "[But] there's a big segment of the population that drinks responsibly, enjoys alcohol, and potentially receives health benefits ... by balancing exercise and alcohol.

"And if drinking alcohol acts as a booster for doing exercise," he adds, "that's not such a bad thing."

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