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.