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My second favorite running t-shirt quote is mostly attributed to the versatile New Zealander Rod Dixon, whose range ranged from an Olympic medal over 1,500 meters to a New York City marathon win: “Anything I want to do,” he said. “is drinking beer and exercising like an animal.” (My favorite is from Noureddine Morceli: “When I race, I am full of doubts. Who will be second? Who will be third?”) I don’t even like beer that much, but there is something delightful about the simplicity of Dixon’s ambitions – something which, it turns out, resonates with many runners.
Many different studies over the years have found that people who exercise a lot also tend to drink more. This is slightly surprising because, in general, healthy or unhealthy behaviors tend to cluster: Sports enthusiasts are less likely to smoke, but are more likely to eat a lot of kale. Granted, it is difficult to classify alcohol as “healthy” or “unhealthy” as there is (very controversial) evidence that light or even moderate drinking can bring health benefits. But I don’t think Dixon’s taste in beer was driven by a desire to lower his blood pressure.
A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise by a research team at the Cooper Institute in Dallas offers a new perspective on the relationship between exercise and alcohol. Much of the earlier studies focused on competitive athletes, particularly college teams, where high alcohol consumption was more likely to reflect connection-like social pressures than an intrinsic desire to drink. But the new study instead examines data from 38,000 healthy patients, ages 20 to 86, who underwent preventive tests at Cooper Clinic – and it, too, finds a strong link between exercise and alcohol habits.
The cardiorespiratory fitness (ie VO2 max) of the subjects was estimated using a treadmill test until exhaustion. Based on these results, they were divided into five equal groups based on their age- and gender-adjusted scores, with the lowest group classified as low fitness, then the next two as moderate fitness, and the two highest as high fitness. In terms of alcohol consumption, people who consumed three or fewer drinks per week were considered light drinkers; up to seven for women and 14 for men was moderate; and about it was difficult.
The main finding was that people of moderate and high fitness were far more likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers than less fit people. For women, being very fit has more than doubled their chances of drinking moderately or heavily. For men, it increased the likelihood by 63 percent. Most of these subjects were neither college hooligans nor top athletes. The median age was 45.9 and the threshold for high fitness in men was a VO2 max of 46.9 ml / kg / min, which is good but won’t win any races. VO2 max and exercise habits are not perfectly correlated as genetics affect VO2 max, but an under-analysis using subjects’ self-reported exercise habits instead of VO2 max found a similar pattern.
The interesting question is why is there a link between exercise and drinking? The authors of the paper cautiously point out that the former could cause the latter, possibly due to a psychological phenomenon known as the licensing effect: when you feel you have done something “good,” reward yourself by allowing yourself to do something “bad”. (For the record, that’s one of the reasons I’m skeptical of the idea of using multivitamins as insurance against gaps in your diet: ingesting a vitamin unconsciously gives you permission to create those gaps.) There actually is a Evidence that people tend to drink more than usual on days when they have been exercising more.
But there is another mindset that suggests that both exercise and alcohol consumption are influenced by the same personality traits. For example, a 2014 study by researcher Leigh Leasure at the University of Houston linked both exercise and drinking to higher levels of sensationalism – a trait that is in turn influenced by how your brain’s reward circuits process dopamine. In the work that follows, Leasure and her colleagues define four different motivations for combining exercise and alcohol, which they describe as hard work, partying, body image, and feelings of guilt. In the first two, movement leads to drinking; in the latter two, drinking leads to exercise.
So does running make you an alcoholic or does it save you from becoming one? You can argue either way – that exercise might increase the reward-seeking behavior that leads people to over-drink, or that it might compete with and supplant the need to drink. There are certainly many tales of ex-addicts who turned ultra runners and saved their lives.
Interestingly, the Cooper Clinic study also conducted a questionnaire to assess the subjects’ alcohol addiction. Overall, 13 percent of the subjects reached the alcohol addiction threshold based on their answers to the questions of whether they tried to reduce their alcohol consumption, were annoyed by criticism, felt guilty about it, or drank first thing in the morning. Of the heavily drinking men (but not the women), the strongest showed the least signs of addiction. This fits in with the idea that their exercise habits fill some of the psychological space that alcohol alone could fill.
This is clearly a subject that will defy broad generalizations and simple truths. Leasure’s work emphasizes the role of individual personality traits and social factors in mediating the links between exercise and alcohol. For those of us with a strong propensity for sensationalism, it pays to keep these connections in mind – and when in doubt, train like an animal.
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