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My weekly mountain biking route takes me through hill and dale, and climaxes with a sweaty ascent back to a mesa-top finish. After that kind of workout, my instinct is typically to down a glass of water.
But I can't tell you how often I’ve wished I was cracking open a cold beer, instead.
Maybe my desire isn’t so unreasonable. According to an extensive new study from Penn State, there's a correlation—and possibly a useful one—between exercise and alcohol. The New York Times dissected this study, along with others, to arrive at some interesting conclusions.
The researchers from Penn State asked 150 volunteers, aged 18 to 75, to complete detailed lifestyle questionnaires. They then provided them with a custom smartphone app to record their daily physical activities and alcohol use. The study was repeated three times, at three weeks a pop, over the course of a year. As the Times explains:
“When the researchers collated and compared the data from their volunteers, they found, for the first time, an unequivocal correlation between exercising on any given day and subsequently drinking, especially if someone exercised more than usual.”
The data does not suggest that physical activity triggers problem drinking. Although one third of the participants reported at least one heavy drinking day during the study (five or more servings of alcohol for men, four or more for women), heavy drinking factored into less than 4 percent of the overall study days, and the drinking was "largely beer consumption."
Another study examined in the Times, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, focused on “what is known about the relationship between physical activity and alcohol intake, gaps in the current knowledge, and implications for the nascent emergence of exercise-based interventions designed to decrease substance use.” The study reviewed previous, related experiments—particularly those involving rodents.
Like humans, rodents find exercise rewarding, and like humans, they also consume alcohol. Both exercise and alcohol use are known to increase activity in areas of the brain related to reward processing. The Times notes:
“There are aspects of reward processing related to exercise that differ from reward processing related to drinking, and those differences may help to explain why, if given the opportunity, animals will avidly engage in both running and ethanol sipping. The resulting neurological high appears to be generally more pervasive and lasting than with either activity alone.”
The study, supported in part by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, explains that “exercise is positively related to alcohol use, and research to date does not suggest that this relation is necessarily harmful to health in non-dependent individuals.”
The Times report concludes with a comment from J. Leigh Leasure, an associate professor at the University of Houston and director of the school’s behavioral neuroscience lab. She suggests that a slight runner's high may urge us to amplify that feeling with a drink. But while a workout might encourage us to get a buzz on, the relationship is not necessarily worrisome—those who drink moderately are unlikely to become problem drinkers as a byproduct of exercise.
But she cautions that it's important to be aware of the ways the two activities can intersect. The average person may not notice that they indulge in an extra beer or two on days when they hit the trail or visit the gym.
And serious athletes shouldn't consider the findings a free pass to get hammered after a workout: One study found that alcohol can impair muscle recovery, and sports nutritionists warn that after a hard workout, athletes should drink water “before indulging in a beer or two.”
Okay, I can live with that. Big glass of water, then celebrate with a frosty one.