Active, responsible drinkers got some good news from a study published Jan. 9 in the European Heart Journal. The study concluded that moderate consumption of alcohol and moderate exercise are both associated with longer life but, more important, the benefit increases when the two behaviors are combined.
"The lowest risk of death from all causes was observed among the physically active, moderate drinkers, and the highest risk among the physically inactive non- and heavy drinkers," said Østergaard Pedersen, the study's lead author and a researcher at the National Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark in Copenhagen. "Neither physical activity alone nor alcohol intake can completely reverse the increased risk associated with alcohol abstention and lack of physical activity. Thus, both moderate to high levels of physical activity and a moderate alcohol intake are important for lowering the risk of fatal heart disease and deaths from all causes."
According to the research, which was co-authored by Morten Grønbæk, director of research at the Institute, previous studies have found moderate drinking to be associated with a lower risk of heart disease, while other studies have found the same for exercise. However, this is the first study to examine a combination of the two, according to the study's authors. This, they said, is especially helpful for physicians since alcohol consumption and exercise habits are pieces of information easily obtained from patients—and both can be modified accordingly.
The researchers pulled data on 11,914 Danes enrolled in the larger Copenhagen City Heart study, in which the participants' health was monitored over about 20 years, beginning in the late '70s and early '80s. In that study, the subjects' patterns of alcohol consumption and exercise were recorded, as well as other lifestyle factors, such as smoking habits and socioeconomic status. Over the 20 years, 1,242 cases of fatal heart disease and 5,901 deaths from any cause were recorded.
When they compared the rates of death to alcohol and exercise patterns, the researchers found that the lowest risk was among men and women who drank between one to 14 drinks per week and also exercised briskly for more than four hours per week. Such men were 30 percent less likely to die by any cause and women were 49 percent less likely to die. Rates of heart disease were also similarly lower among these people.
The physically inactive had the highest risk of death, regardless of drinking habits, and within each level of physical activity the moderate drinkers had the lowest risk of death from all causes. The researchers pointed out, however, that the study results are meant to highlight the importance of all-around responsible, healthy behavior; they cautioned against taking only pieces away from the research.
"Our study shows that being both physically active and drinking a moderate amount of alcohol is important for lowering the risk of both fatal heart disease and death from all causes," Grønbæk said.
"For both men and women, being physically active was associated with a significantly lower risk for both fatal heart disease and all-cause mortality than being physically inactive; and drinking alcohol was associated with a lower risk of fatal heart disease than abstaining," he added. "A weekly moderate alcohol intake reduced the risk of all-cause mortality among both men and women, whereas the risk among heavy drinkers was similar to nondrinkers."