Why It’s Especially Important To Work Out if You Drink Alcohol

Regular exercise may counteract some of alcohol's long-term health risks.

Some studies have linked drinking alcohol at or above recommended levels to increased disease and early death likelihood. But one study, in particular, said that regularly exercising may offset some of those risks. 

One of the first to examine the opposite influences that physical activity and alcohol intake seem to have on mortality—due to cancer, heart disease, and other causes—here's what the study suggests about how exercise may counteract some of alcohol's long-term health risks.

What Are the Risks of Drinking Too Much Alcohol?

Alcohol consumption is an "integral part" of western culture, the study authors wrote. But just because it's a huge part of the western culture doesn't mean it is always safe.

There are consequences of heavy drinking. Drinking in higher-than-moderate amounts (eight drinks a week or more for women and 15 or more for men) increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

In addition to those risks, excessive alcohol consumption can also put you at risk for the following:

  • Injuries (like car crashes)
  • Violence
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Miscarriage
  • A weakened immune system
  • Mental health problems
  • Alcohol dependence

What Are the Benefits of Physical Activity?

Exercise, on the other hand, is known to help people stay healthy and live longer. In addition to those benefits, physical activity can also:

  • Improve your brain health
  • Help to manage weight
  • Reduce the risk of disease (heart disease, cancer, diabetes)
  • Strengthen bones and muscles
  • Improve your ability to do everyday tasks

So, there are risks to excessive alcohol consumption and benefits to physical activity. What happens when these two are put together? 

The study authors wrote that physical activity and alcohol consumption "may be linked to chronic disease through shared pathways but acting in the opposite directions."

What Happens When You Exercise and Drink Alcohol?

Researchers set out to see whether staying active might help cancel out the harmful effects of alcohol consumption over the years. To test their hypothesis, they looked at survey responses about health and drinking from more than 36,000 adults. Nearly 6,000 of those adults died.

After accounting for other factors that could potentially influence their results, the researchers found that drinking any amount (compared to lifelong abstinence) was associated with a heightened risk of death from cancer. And the more people drank, the higher that risk was. Heavy drinking was also associated with an increased risk of death from all causes.

But they saw a more nuanced picture when they factored in physical activity. The links between drinking and death—from all causes and cancer—remained for people with less than the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. For those who moved at least that much, however, those risks were lessened or canceled out.

In fact, people who were physically active and drank occasionally (not every week) seemed to have a lower risk for cardiovascular death than those who didn't drink at all. On the other hand, occasional drinkers who were sedentary didn't reap the same benefits.

"This suggests that low and irregular alcohol consumption has cardioprotective effects, but these effects need some physical activity to ignite," said study co-author Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, associate professor of exercise, health and physical activity sport sciences at the University of Sydney in Australia.

So, Does Exercise Cancel Out the Effects of Alcohol?

Because this was an observational study, and it didn't look at specific drinking or dietary patterns, the authors couldn't draw definite conclusions about cause and effect. 

But the findings do indicate that physical activity has the potential to curb some of the harmful effects of drinking. What's more, those benefits start at relatively low levels—just 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, the minimum amount recommended for overall health by the U.S. government.

Still, that doesn't mean that people who exercise regularly shouldn't worry about excessive drinking. 

"Our study examined specific long-term health outcomes in relation to alcohol drinking, and it says nothing for all other alcohol harms such as liver disease, mental health conditions, brain damage, or car accidents and alcohol-fueled violence," said Stamatakis.

Given that drinking is so prevalent in society, it doesn't make sense to recommend abstinence, added Stamatakis, who suggested limiting consumption to moderate levels at most.

A Quick Review

Excessive drinking isn't recommended since it can cause health effects like cancer, heart disease, and stroke. If you drink alcohol, you should try to stay within the recommended guidelines. 

"As long as people remain physically active, consumption within these guidelines would be wise advice," said Stamatakis. "And it may be a good idea to take a break from alcohol for a week or a few weeks from time to time."

Stamatakis added that the findings highlight what we already know: how important it is to stay active. 

"Exercise is such a powerful influence that may even offset some of the damage done by other unhealthy behaviors," explained Stamatakis. "If we were to interpret our results causally, it looks like physical inactivity and alcohol drinking is a very toxic combination."

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  1. Perreault K, Bauman A, Johnson N, Britton A, Rangul V, Stamatakis E. Does physical activity moderate the association between alcohol drinking and all-cause, cancer and cardiovascular diseases mortality? A pooled analysis of eight British population cohorts. Br J Sports Med. 2017;51(8):651-657.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol use and your health.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Benefits of physical activity.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018

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