If you exercise all week can you drink all weekend? Maybe. The quote in British outlet the Mail Online is “Adults who booze regularly but exercise for five hours a week are no more likely to die than teetotalers.” That’s a simplification of course. There’s a large 10 year study published in the peer-reviewed British Journal of Sports Medicine that shows physical activity can counteract some of the ills of alcohol consumption. It’s a strong study looking at data that was collected from adults aged 40+ from national surveys in the United Kingdom. The study shows that while alcohol intake increases death from cancer especially but also from all causes, people who followed the recommended level of physical activity were no more at risk than the non-drinkers. Alcohol has been shown to increase one’s likelihood of cancer, in particular mouth and throat, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breast cancers, according to the journal Addiction. And it is imperative to note that the study was looking at death from cancer and other causes, not diagnosis rates.
The researchers, who hail from the UK, Canada, Australia and also Norway, used data from England and Scotland from 1994-2006. There were 36,370 people, both men and women, who answered questions about a multitude of health behaviors, and categorized their level of exercise and alcohol. These participants were followed over time to see how their health changed. The researchers controlled for the most obvious factors like body size, smoking status, and sex/gender. They used MET (metabolic equivalent of task) hours to categorize exercise, where 1 MET is sitting at rest, and the more intense the exercise, the higher the MET. For example jogging for 1 hour is equal to 7 MET hours while calisthenics at home for an hour would be 3.5 MET hours.
It’s important to understand what the categories were for both exercise and alcohol. Bottom line, you can’t drink too heavily no matter how much you exercise. In this study they defined hazardous levels as 14-15 drinks per week for women and 19-21 for men. At this level the exercise still seemed to counter the alcohol. But above that level the benefits of exercise did not outweigh the impacts of alcohol. What about exercise levels? They considered inactive as less than 7 MET hours per week, lower active as between 7.5-15 MET hours and higher active as >15 MET hours per week. In practical terms that’s jogging for 30 min 4 times per week. This level of exercise also offered a protective effect against cardiovascular disease, confirming results we already know from a multitude of other studies.
While we can’t be certain that exercise alone reduced the risks associated with alcohol consumption- it could be other lifestyle factors that were not measured- it seems like a good assumption for now. We know we should exercise for our heart health, to reduce cancer risks, and to maintain strong bones and muscles. But if you are someone who drinks alcohol consider this a very strong push to make physical activity a priority. Get moving!
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