Katherine Schreiber MFA, LMSW

The Truth About Exercise Addiction

Alcoholism

Can Exercising Drive You to Drink?

Surprising new research, and a host of possible explanations.

Posted Dec 03, 2015

By Katherine Schreiber

Dirima/Shutterstock
Source: Dirima/Shutterstock

Ever craved a cold beer, a cocktail, or a generous glass of wine after a workout? If so, you're not alone. A review examining physical activity’s counterintuitive connection with alcohol consumption found that raising our exercise rate could also increase how much we drink.

To reach this conclusion, a team of Pennsylvania State University researchers led by David E. Conroy armed 150 adult men and women with a smartphone app into which they tracked their daily exercise and drinking habits for 21 consecutive days. (For the record: No drunk textsi were recorded in the study results.)

After a year’s worth of data collection, Conroy’s crew found that regular workouts indeed correlated with regular drinking. And when participants subjected themselves to particularly strenuous workouts they appeared even more likely to order additional rounds. As the researchers put it:

“People drank more than usual on the same days that they engaged in more PA [physical activity] than usual.”

Quite literally, these active individuals were living the motto, "work hard, play hard." (As for whether their livers enjoyed this? We’ll have to await further research.)

Why might pursuing fitness promote a more passionate pursuit of alcohol as well? The study authors suggest several possible reasons:

Participating in group sports or group exercise endeavors may increase our exposure to peers who like to drink and whom we’re eager to follow to the bar—if not just to prove to them that we, too, can “hang,” then to further strengthen the social bonds we’ve forged over our mutual love of exercise. (Conroy et al. point to other research confirming that even our healthiest social ties can increase how many drinks we throw back.)

Personality factors may also be in play: The same extraversion that leads us to make exercise a regular habit may also incline us to rally our pals for happy hour and be more drawn towards social atmospheres where plenty of alcohol is within reach.

Extraversion may even predispose us to feel more rewarded by inputs like alcoholic drinks as well as the endorphin rush of getting our workout on. This is especially intriguing when you consider the many cases of former alcoholics or substance misusers developing addictions to exercise despite being in recovery.

But Conroy et al. underscored an even likelier explanation why those who work out may drink more: The pesky propensity us humans have to reward ourselves with a “bad thing” (i.e., consume alcohol) the moment we do something “good” (i.e., spin class).

The researchers don’t exclude the likelihood that individuals concerned about their physical appearance might increase their exercise intensity (or increase the length of time they spend working out) on the days they anticipate drinking more—or the day after one too many drinks. The goals in this case are to compensate for all those calories booze can sneak into our bodies, or to “sweat out” the toxins alcohol can introduce.

Yet another explanation for why training for a six pack may make a six-packs of beer seem more appealing is the carb-craving many people feel following a challenging workout. In this case, you’re body may simply just be telling you to feed it. It might, then, not actually be the alcohol you’re jonesing; it could be more about the carbs and perhaps even the polyphenol content of certain brews. For example, non-alcoholic beer has been found to reduce inflammation in marathoners’ muscles and to prevent against upper-respiratory tract infections following heavy training sessions—the key term here being non-alcoholic.

Turns out, the hormone called ghrelin—which our stomachs secrete to send the "hey, we need to eat!" signal to our brains—can sometimes make us just as thirsty for alcohol as it makes us hungry for food, especially if drinking is already a habit. When heavy drinkers in one study let researchers inject them with ghrelin, they reported markedly stronger cravings for their adult beverages of choice. Mice injected with ghrelin also appeared to show a preference for alcohol over water when under the hormone's influence.

Exercise has been found to both increase and decrease the hunger hormone ghrelin—depending on the study, the population, and the length of time subjects spend exerting themselves—so we can't say for sure that exercise's association with increased drinking is always a direct function of elevated ghrelin levels following acute bouts of exertion. However, weight loss has been shown to increase ghrelin. Thus, rather than the workouts themselves prompting a boost in ghrelin, it may be the shedding of pounds brought about by those workouts that increases the appetitive hormone, driving some active individuals to drink more.

Then again, many of us may just like to reward ourselves with a cold one (or two) after a taxing gym session—simply because we feel we've "earned it." (See also: How we justify doubling up on dessert or sitting for longer periods of time simply because we made it to Zumba in the morning.)

Suffice to say, the relationship between drinking and exercising is complicated.

But studies do show that reasonable amounts of alcohol confer some health benefits—even champagne has been shown to boost brain and heart health. In fact, people who drink a moderate amount of alcohol throughout their life span may even live longer than those who never drink at all. (Keep in mind that “moderate” typically means one to two servings of alcohol, for men, and one, for women.)

Medical professionals don’t advocate pairing Pilates with pina coladas, despite some gyms’ decision to jump the gun in this regard, not to mention the increasingly popular booze-friendly races popping up across the country. Keep in mind: Going overboard on alcohol can slow recovery from heavy bouts of physical exertion, exacerbate post-exercise muscular damage, and sap subsequent strength, as well as impede signaling between musculoskeletal neurons. What’s more, too much alcohol can interfere with our sleep cycles, depriving us of a much-needed recharge when our muscles could rebuild after a challenging workout.

This isn’t to say you should cancel your social plans on the days you plan to exercise. But it’s a reminder to be aware of some subtly self-sabotaging forces that could result from your workouts—and a potentially dangerous cycle of loading up on alcohol only to feel compelled to burn it off the next day that mimics an eating-disordered or exercise-addicted mindset.

Bottom line: Both alcohol and exercise may have the potential to increase longevity and confer benefits like cardiovascular health and cognitive sharpness. But if approached irresponsibly and excessively, each can take its toll. As long as we keep our penchants for endorphin highs or alcohol buzzes from interfering with the benefits of the other—and provided we don’t let either get in the way of our social, professional, and personal lives—chances are we’re doing just fine. This holiday season, when alcohol consumption is known to increase hand in hand with New Years’ resolutions to get fit, remember to drink—and exercise—responsibly,

[i] The researchers did throw in the caveat that some of the self-reports may have been skewed by answering pings under the influence: "Within-person associations may be threatened by the effects of alcohol itself given that reports were made at the end of each day.” Skeptical readers may want to chase these findings with a small lick of salt.