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One Small Change

A Strange Connection Between Exercise and Alcohol

Doug Pensinger / Getty Images

For this month’s One Small Change experiment, I’ve given up drinking on weekdays. But after building some momentum last week, I carried right through the weekend and have been dry now for 10 days.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recall that I swore off caffeine for a month a while back. I’m not exaggerating when I say that was akin to having dental work done without anesthesia. My whole head hurt for days. But, surprisingly, going cold turkey on booze didn’t have any negative repercussions. In fact, I’m feeling mentally sharper and physically stronger. I’m even sleeping better.

Not that it’s been easy. I’d grown accustomed to a daily happy hour that consisted of a few beers or martinis around 5 or 6 o’clock. It was my reward for a hard day’s work and a relaxing segue to the evening. And sure enough, I still feel the tug and my thirst seems to pique every day at that time.

Compounding this temptation was the fact that my first dry week coincided with an intensive 5-day yoga workshop, in which I sweated more than Bernie Madoff before his first prison shower. Driving home after each session, I couldn’t help thinking how great a cold beer would taste. The neon lights in the bars I passed seemed unusually bright.

A couple months ago, there was an intriguing study that came out of the University of Miami. Researchers there analyzed data collected from 230,000 American men and women and found a strong correlation between physical activity and drinking. The more alcohol people imbibed, the more likely they were to exercise. And we’re not talking about staggering home from the pub either. This was moderate-to-vigorous activity. Plus, the more they drank, the longer they tended to work out. Overall, drinking was associated with a 10 percent rise in the probability of vigorous exercise.

Although the researchers didn’t speculate on why this was so, I think I know. If these people are anything like me, the first feeling they get after the headache and cottonmouth subsides is guilt. After a weekend of doing beer-bottle biceps curls, I feel the need to clean out my system during the week. Working out is an easy way to instantly feel better and rebalanced. And as I mentioned before, exercise also makes me feel more justified in my rewards—whether it’s chocolate cake or chocolate stout.

But despite it being ingrained in our culture, exercise and drinking are not good mixers. As my colleague David Schipper recently pointed out in this blog post, consuming alcohol after a training session hampers muscle performance for almost 60 hours. One study found that muscles not only showed signs of poor recovery but they were also unable to generate the same torque they had earlier. It’s like the muscles themselves get hung-over.

And as if that wasn’t enough, a Wellesley College study found that drinking actually shrinks the size of your brain. People who had more than 14 drinks per week suffered an average 1.6 percent reduction in brain volume over time. I don’t know how many lost brain cells that equates to, but it doesn’t sound good.

So I know what you’re thinking. What about all those medical studies that show moderate drinking is good for your health and especially your heart? No argument here. It’s just that such advice is based on one’s ability to toe the line between moderate and excessive drinking. Since alcohol is an addictive substance, that’s very difficult to do. I drifted across without even realizing it.

Now I’m not suggesting that we put an end to champagne celebrations after pennants or even a well-earned beer with your buds after a training run. Just watch that it doesn’t become a habit, like it did with me, and in the process interfere with the very reason you’re working out in the first place—to feel healthy, vibrant, connected and alive. If I had to pick one word to describe how I feel right now after nearly two weeks without a drop of alcohol, it would be “clean.” I can see now why “clean and sober” is a cliché among recovering alcoholics; you actually do feel fresher, as if your muscles and mind have been dusted of corner cobwebs.

Although this experiment is far from over and I will certainly be tempted more, right now I’m thinking how senseless it is to be so obsessive about what we eat for health and performance, but then relax those rules when it comes to alcohol. As much as it hurts me to say so and how blasphemous it will sound to sports fans, maybe booze is no different from Big Macs—a liquid junk food.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Hydration, Beverages, Health