Why Exercise and Too Much Alcohol Aren't Good Mixers
Even though quite a few people are giving
it a shot
In a recent study looking at both the exercise habits and drinking habits of almost a quarter
of a million men and women, a rather surprising bit of evidence came to light. It turns out that the notion that heavy drinkers get most of their exercise bending their elbows simply doesn't hold up. Rather than fitting the stereotype of exercise-averse couch potatoes, individuals who consume what is generally considered to be an unhealthy portion of alcohol (more than two drinks per day for men, one for women) also tend to hit the gym with a lot of intensity.
The statistics showed, in fact, that heavy drinkers exercised 10 minutes longer on average (over the course of a week) than their more moderate counterparts and 20 minutes more than people who abstain from drinking alcohol.
The explanation for this surprising information, part of a trend that is even more pronounced in women, is that people exercise more to make up for the extra calories from drinking the night before. So basically it seems to be a matter of working out to work it off, a rationalized strategy for a work hard, play hard approach to life. Another theory is that overindulging in drink helps relieve the tensions of the day (although only temporarily at best and not without a downside) in a way that's similar to exercise. As a result, the two become linked together in some people's minds.
But whatever the reasons behind the phenomenon, at the end of the day – or night – mixing too much alcohol with your fitness routine simply isn't a healthy idea. Here's why:
1. Alcohol sends the wrong message to your metabolism. Heavy drinking (again, anything more than the moderate designation of one drink a day for women, two a day for men and one a day for anyone over 65) or binge drinking causes the body to prioritize metabolizing the alcohol over burning fat and carbohydrates. In addition, as part of a complex chemical process, alcohol in our systems also breaks down amino acids and stores them as fat, particularly in the thighs and belly.
If that's not bad enough the alcohol also increases levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that further encourages fat storage while adversely affecting muscle density. So if you're exercising regularly, you may be just spinning your wheels as the excess drinking tends to cancel out a lot of hard work.
2. Alcohol slows down the recovery process after exercising. A good workout will naturally drain the glycogen stored in your liver and muscles in the form of carbs. When there's too much alcohol on board it displaces the carbs, keeping your stores of glycogen (which our bodies need for energy) from recovering normally, limiting your performance and creating the potential for damage to your muscle tissues.
3. Alcohol makes it more difficult to absorb nutrients. Because alcohol irritates the stomach lining, too much drinking can reduce your ability to absorb needed nutrients. To add to the problem, alcohol is dehydrating (even when it seems like that cold beer is quenching your thirst) which also has a negative effect on your endurance.
4. Alcohol isn't something you can sleep on – at least not well. A large body of research over the years has shown that drinking to excess takes its toll on sleeping by disrupting your normal sleep cycle in general and decreasing the amount you sleep in particular. Besides feeling tired and listless, the problem is that disrupting the sleep cycle also reduces muscle-building hormone output by a significant amount.
If you do find yourself in that party-hard-then-work-out-hard trajectory, National Alcohol Awareness Month (April) may be a good time to start taking a different approach. Because instead of generating all that sweat just to balance out the drinking you can use your efforts to move forward with your fitness goals in a positive and lasting way.
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