Alcohol and Fitness: What’s the Real Relationship?

Most people know that excessive drinking is never healthy. Over the long term, excessive drinking can cause or contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, liver disease, stroke, various cancers, dementia, depression, and anxiety. It can also lead to alcohol dependence.

Accordingly, the CDC recommends that men have no more than two drinks per day and women no more than one drink per day. Some scientists believe this upper limit may be overstated—some research has found that drinking more than seven glasses of beer or wine per week (100 grams of alcohol per week) is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes.

When it comes to physical fitness and athletic performance, excessive drinking is incompatible. You won’t see any professional athletes who go out drinking every night. If you want your body at peak performance level, you fuel it with healthy food, proper hydration, and enough sleep, and you avoid abusing it with alcohol.

However, what about casual, social drinking—a glass of wine with dinner a few nights a week, or a beer at happy hour on Fridays with coworkers? How does this kind of drinking affect health and fitness? Do you need to completely give up alcohol if you’re serious about fitness? Here’s what we know. 

Alcohol Use

Most people drink at least occasionally. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that in 2018, 69.5 percent of adults over 18 drank alcohol in the past year, and 54.9 percent drank alcohol in the past month.

Alcohol is a deeply rooted part of our culture—it fulfills a social purpose and is widely associated with celebration, festivities, and togetherness. Of course, plenty of people use “celebration” as an excuse to drink excessively, but the point still stands that alcohol has a longstanding place in our culture.

Effects of Alcohol on Physical Performance

Alcohol can interfere with physical performance. It’s a considered a sedative that affects your motor skills, hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and balance. Alcohol is also a powerful diuretic—it can quickly dehydrate you and affect your internal balance of minerals like potassium, magnesium, and zinc, which your muscles need.

In addition, alcohol can interfere with the production of testosterone, which is needed to maintain lean muscle mass. Some research has even shown that testosterone levels in men can drop just 30 minutes after consuming alcohol. 

Research has also revealed that even moderate alcohol use can impair your body’s ability to build muscle. In one study, participants completed a weight lifting and interval training session, then consumed whey protein and alcohol immediately afterwards, a carbohydrate meal two hours later, and whey protein and alcohol two hours after that. Researchers took muscle biopsies at two and eight hours after the training session, and the biopsies indicated reduced rates of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS was 24% and 37% slower at the two- and eight-hour post-workout marks, respectively.

Can You Drink and Lose Weight?

If you’re looking to lose weight, alcohol can seriously hamper your progress. All weight loss programs are ultimately based on consuming fewer calories than you expend, and alcohol is high in calories.

There are around 100 calories in the average shot of liquor, 230 calories in a glass of wine, and 150 calories in a 12 fl oz glass of beer. Even if you drink light beer, at 100 calories per bottle, you’d still consume 700 extra calories per week if you have one every night. In addition, what people say about alcohol is true—it’s “empty” calories. These calories don’t offer much in terms of nutritional value and they’re not going to provide you with any energy. What’s more, because alcohol lowers your inhibitions, it can also cause you to make poor food choices. After a beer or two, that cheeseburger and fries you didn’t intend to eat may look too tempting.

Alcohol also slows your metabolism and reduces your body’s ability to burn fat. One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who drank less than an ounce of alcohol over a 30-minute period were 73% less able to burn fat.

Still, long-term weight loss is all about making sustainable, healthy choices, and it may be unrealistic to completely swear off alcohol forever. Assuming you do not have an alcohol dependency, there are ways to incorporate alcohol into a healthy lifestyle.

Tips for Responsible Drinking and Staying Fit

If you want to keep up with your fitness goals, but you’re not completely prepared to give up alcohol, the following tips can help you make better choices.

Don’t drink excessively: It’s obvious, but worth repeating. Drink in moderation—perhaps a couple drinks or fewer over the course of a week. Drinking less is healthier than drinking more.

Be careful of mixers: Rum, vodka, gin, tequila, and whiskey have zero carbohydrates, but be careful of what you pair them with—fruit juices and sodas add extra calories and lots of sugar.  

Choose clear over dark: If you’re drinking hard liquors, choose vodka or gin. Dark liquors have different fermentation processes and contain higher amounts of organic compounds and impurities. Some research indicates dark liquors are more likely to cause hangovers.

Sip red wine instead of white: Red wine has higher levels of antioxidants than white wine, and it contains resveratrol, a compound that may protect the lining of blood vessels. At the same time, don’t buy into all the hype you’ve probably heard about red wine—don’t start drinking red wine “for the health benefits.” You can also get resveratrol from grapes, blueberries, and cranberries, for example.  

Don’t drink 48 hours before an event: If you’re training for a big event like a marathon, it’s best to lay off the alcohol in the last few days beforehand.

Be self-aware: Even if you’re only drinking a few drinks per week, it’s always a good idea to examine your relationship with alcohol. For example, why are you drinking? Are you stressed? Do you actually enjoy it? Be honest with yourself.

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