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Tell Me How Much You Drink, And I'll Tell You How Much You Exercise

A new study finds that alcohol drinkers are more likely to work out

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: August 31, 2009

A new study finds that wine drinkers do more than just bend their elbows—regular consumers of alcohol are 10 percent more likely to engage in vigorous physical activity than nondrinkers. In fact, the research found that the more people drink, the more they tend to work out, as light, moderate and heavy drinkers exercised close to six, 10 and 20 minutes more, respectively, per week than abstainers.

The study appears in the September/October issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion. Authors Michael French and Ioana Popovici, both with the University of Miami's department of sociology, and Johanna Catherine Maclean, of Cornell's department of policy analysis and management, sought to clarify the relationship between alcohol consumption and physical activity.

Previous research has found that unhealthful habits, such as smoking, usually go hand in hand with other bad habits, such as poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle, potentially magnifying negative health effects. Chronic alcohol consumption is often classified as a detrimental habit, even though "evidence of an association between physical activity and alcohol intake is inconclusive," the authors write.

The researchers pulled data from the 2005 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey, a state-administered telephone survey conducted in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and designed to measure behavioral risk that may be linked to chronic or preventable infectious diseases in the U.S. adult population. The BRFSS collected extensive data on more than 350,000 Americans. For the current study, the authors examined data on 230,856 individuals between 21 and 65 years old. They excluded minors, who cannot legally purchase alcohol, and the elderly, who have often altered their drinking habits in retirement.

In the telephone survey, participants were asked to classify their physical habits by providing the number of days per week spent exercising for at least 10 minutes. The amount of activity was then categorized according to the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations for physical activity: 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise per day on five or more days per week, or 20 minutes or more of vigorous exercise per day for three or more days per week.

When classifying drinking habits, the researchers classified women who consumed one to 14 drinks per month and men who consumed one to 29 drinks per month as light drinkers. Women who consumed 15 to 45 drinks monthly and men who drank 30 to 75 were labeled moderate drinkers. Women who drank more than 46 drinks per month and men who drank more than 76 drinks per month were considered heavy drinkers. The team compared the rates of exercise across alcohol drinking habits in order to develop a likelihood of exercise.

"Alcohol users not only exercised more than abstainers, but the differential actually increased with more drinking," said French, in a statement. "There is a strong association between all levels of drinking and both moderate and vigorous physical activity."

Among women, those currently consuming alcohol exercised an average of 7.2 minutes more per week than those who abstained. Relative to abstainers, the more alcohol used, the longer the person exercised. Specifically, light, moderate and heavy drinkers exercised 5.7, 10.1 and 19.9 minutes more per week, respectively. Overall, drinking was associated with a 10.1 percent increase in the probability of engaging in vigorous physical activity. The results for men were similar.

However, the authors add that a limitation to the study is the lack of long-term data on alcohol and exercise. The telephone survey asked only for drinking and exercise habits over the previous 30 days. Also, co-author Popovici said, in a statement, that the "alcohol use measures we used do not distinguish between types of alcoholic beverages."

French adds that the results do not suggest that people should use alcohol to boost their exercise programs, as the study was not designed to determine whether alcohol intake itself actually caused an increase in exercise. And the health problems associated with heavy drinking may outweigh the benefits of exercise.

"While those who are at risk for problem drinking should minimize or curtail their consumption of alcohol, light to moderate drinking may be health-enhancing for some people," the statement reads. "If responsible drinkers are using exercise to partially counteract the caloric intake from alcohol, that is not such as bad thing."

Richland WA USA —  September 1, 2009 12:38am ET
I've always been an advocate of exercise and moderate drinking. When I used to compete in college cross country beer was my drink of choice when relaxing. Now with moderate exercise red wine tastes very good after hydrating first. wine helps wind me down and I know that there 3e good things in wine that can only help keep me healthier in body and mind.
Steve Kirchner
huntington beach, ca —  September 2, 2009 3:19pm ET
so i was really Really drunk and this guy calls me up and asks me how much i exercise and i tell him i work out every day. whatever. i wonder who funds these 'studies' anyway.
Barnaby-monica Starr
Phoenix, Maryland —  September 8, 2009 8:55pm ET
I am about to run my 20th marathon and every night my
wife and I share a bottle of wine. I was considering an
attempt at an ultra (50 = 100 miles), but maybe my
liver could not handle the increased wine consumption
that such an increase in mileage would necessitate!

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