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Drinkers more Likely to Adopt Physically Active Lifestyles

Moderate and heavy adult drinkers are more likely to engage in physical exercise than abstainers, according to a new University of Miami study.

The study was published in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Previous studies on alcohol use and physical activity were inconclusive. While some showed a positive association, others found a negative or no correlation. To better understand this relationship, researchers examined alcohol consumption and physical activity amongst U.S. adults.

Lead study author, Michael T. French, Ph.D. and his team used data from a nationally representative sample involving over 230,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 65 years. In addition to examining socioeconomic and demographic data, researchers assigned a drinking category to each participant based on their past 30-day usage (abstainers, light drinkers, moderate drinkers and heavy drinkers). To measure physical activity, the number of minutes in a typical week for total exercise and for vigorous exercise was recorded.

In analyzing the data, researchers found that in both men and women as drinking levels increased, the amount of physical activity increased. When compared with abstainers, female heavy drinkers exercised almost 20 minutes more per week. In men, a similar association was found, with heavy drinkers exercising almost 23 minutes more per week.

As drinking levels increased, both male and female drinkers were more likely to engage in vigorous exercise. In both sexes, this effect was most pronounced at moderate drinking levels (in females, 59% of moderate drinkers participated in vigorous physical activity vs. 37.4% of abstainers; in males, 65% of moderate drinkers participated in vigorous physical activity vs. 52.1% of abstainers).

At first glance, the study results seem somewhat surprising. However, the study authors offered insight to explain the behavior. They speculated that heavy drinking is part of a sensational seeking lifestyle. Individuals attracted to this type of lifestyle may also be attracted to high-risk sports like skiing and mountaineering. Given the social nature of these sports, the physical activity and the drinking go hand-in-hand. The notion of “live hard, play hard” may apply to these types of people. Additionally, individuals may exercise more to compensate for the increased caloric intake at higher drinking levels.

“These results point to a complex set of relationships between health behaviors that do not always follow expected patterns,” said study authors.

The Bottom Line

We often associate heavy drinking with physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet and smoking. Clearly, this study challenges these widely held beliefs.

What this and other studies have revealed is that moderate drinking can be health promoting. In this study, female moderate drinkers had the lowest rates for heart attack, angina, stroke, asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure as compared to abstainers or other drinking levels. In male moderate drinkers, they also had the lowest or second to lowest rates for these health indicators.

An adoption of a moderate lifestyle may better explain why these drinkers have lower rates of chronic disease. These individuals may have a more sensible approach to not only drinking but physical exercise and eating.

When considering alcohol, keep in mind the definition of moderate drinking – it’s just 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.

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