addiction · fitness · running

Run a marathon, chug a keg?

I was surprised to read the other day in Women’s Health that the most dedicated exercisers are also the biggest drinkers. According to Selene Yeager, author of  Exercise and Alcohol: Running on Empty Bottles people who exercise a lot tend also to drink a lot, far beyond levels we think of as healthy. I won’t recap the numbers, you can look at the Women’s Health story, but the trend seems especially pronounced for women. Yeager discusses the reasons why over the top exercisers are also over the top imbibers.

It’s not because they feel they’ve freed up the calories so they’ve earned their cocktails either. (That might have been my first guess.)

Instead, the researchers Yeager interviewed said it has to do with activation of the pleasure centers of the brain. “The downside of constantly activating these reward pathways is this: Your brain gets used to it and wants more, says Brian R. Christie, Ph.D., neuroscience program director at the University of British Columbia Division of Medical Sciences. So it’s not shocking that someone who craves a 10-K or a blistering CrossFit session will also readily down a couple of vodka sodas.”

This fascinated me because a)I’m a non-drinker and a pretty dedicated exerciser myself, and b)even when I did drink, I drank less, not more, while exercising lots insofar as this waxes and wanes. Athletic events that involve booze have always puzzled me.

When I first became Chair of my Department, I decided that one of the things I wanted to do was offer a  broader range of social events for department members. As the parent of three young children, trying to have a an active lifestyle, I thought there was far too much focus on events that involved alcohol. “Wine and cheese” receptions and “pub nights” after talks are pretty much a mainstay of academic life.

Ironically the first event we became involved in was a 24 hour relay race, sponsored by a local brewery (profits going to area hospitals.) The Philosophy Department’s team three years in a row got ‘the most laps ran’ in The Labatts 24 Hour Relay, beating out The Running Room team, the fit looking folks from Goodlife, and even the Department of Kinesiology. I attributed our success to two things.

First, we roped in department members training for marathons to run the overnight shifts.

Second, we  adopted  a strict “no drinking until after you’ve had your turn running” policy.  This might seem obvious but each year I was shocked and a little sickened to see people trying to run while carrying red plastic cups of beer, slurping jello shooters between each 2 km lap, and then (of course, of course) throwing up on the path. Stepping over puddles of puke isn’t my preferred running style!

Yeager concludes that in moderate doses, exercise works to replace drinking, but that as the levels and duration of exercise pick up, so too does one’s drinking. I’m still mulling this over, wondering how I fit into the story. Interestingly, links after the Women’s Health article were to yet more articles looking at the unhealthy habits of the very fit. It turns out they have riskier sex, are less likely to wear sunscreen despite spending more time in the sun, and are more likely to suffer from eating disorders.

(We’re so fit we’re invincible!)

This made me wonder about another explanation for the bad drinking habits. Maybe there’s a maximum amount of concern for our health we can have and once we’ve used it up in one area, we’re less likely to care for our health in others. Recent research about will power shows it to be limited in this way. Disciplined writing means less disciplined eating apparently. Eat carefully at lunch but then you might fail to follow through on your commitment to working out that night. Again, this is the opposite that I would have thought. Like Aristotle, I’ve often thought that virtuous habits supported one another. And that excellence, like virtue, is a habit.

But maybe Aristotle is wrong.

6 thoughts on “Run a marathon, chug a keg?

  1. Great post! If the most “dedicated” means those who are *really* into exercise, we might go to the moderators versus abstainers post for an explanation. If dedicated means more than moderation, then maybe dedicated exercisers drink lots because they’re unable to moderate. You and I are abstainers, but that’s the exception not the rule. I think if you didn’t have the no drinking policy on the 24 hour relay, the department team would have been just as soused as the rest of the teams. There again you see abstinence (even if temporary) at work. And as for disciplined writing leading to less disciplined eating, I would just chalk that up to a bad reward system (e.g. I wrote lots today so I deserve a piece of chocolate cake). Similarly with the careful lunch, skip the workout issue: I was so “good” at lunch time I can skip my workout today. We think in terms of rewards for good behavior, but that doesn’t mean we are always smart in choosing rewards. It’s good to have a long list of non-food rewards on hand so chocolate and skipping workouts aren’t always the go-to rewards when we do something well. As someone who did the “I wrote lots so I deserve chocolate” thing today, I’m going to be more aware of this tendency tomorrow and head it off at the pass.

  2. Another fascinating blog. We are all infuriating bags of inconsistencies. We decide to exercise. Exercise becomes our new addiction. We’re ridiculously lazy, but obsessive-compulsive. We’re afraid, and we like it. Anyone (who can self-deprecate without romanticizing themselves too much) could write the next sentence in this chain. The ways in which survival mechanisms manifest themselves as seeming inconsistencies is almost surreal.

    1. I’m interested, and fascinated by, the way our own bodies undercut our best efforts. The one that gets me is the idea that heavy exercisers move less the rest of the day and so burn just as many calories as if they hadn’t exercised at all. When not exercising, they’re chronic sitters! The study is cited in the Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First 20 Minutes, Following a group of young men assigned to a heavy exercise program, researchers were surprised at how little weight they lost. Yes, they ate more but more surprisingly, “They also were resolutely inactive in the hours outside of exercise, the motion sensors show. When they weren’t working out, they were, for the most part, sitting. “I think they were fatigued,” Mr. Rosenkilde says.” It’s another argument in favour of short, sharp, intense crossfit style workouts since they don’t seem to have this effect.

  3. What a fascinating finding! I am a moderate drinker and enjoy some extreme workouts (marathon); I focus on reducing my alcohol intake during training because I sleep deeper without alcohol (better recovery) and I figure that my muscles just build better without alcohol in my system (a body-builder friend got this notion in my head – he always abstains for 24 hours after his work-outs, 4 days out of the week).

    That being said, I am still a person who drinks a little more than those around me when we’re social drinking – I drink a little more to get to the same level of chatty/boozed status as my friends. Huh.

    Even as a moderate drinker, I agree that alcohol during events has always confused me!

Comments are closed.