Study author says it’s worth exploring whether physical activity is a good intervention for some alcoholics.
Using smartphones to gather daily data, researchers have found that we drink more on days that we work out, and we do both more on Thursday through Sunday. The question remaining is why?
The Northwestern University study took a new approach to gathering information from subjects about their alcohol consumption and physical activity, reasoning that better accuracy would result with daily reporting. The researchers said past studies had asked people about their habits in the previous 30 days and did not drill down to days of the week.
“Monday through Wednesday, people batten down the hatches and they cut back on alcohol consumption,” said David E. Conroy, lead author of the study. “But once that ‘social weekend’ kicks off on Thursdays, physical activity increases and so does alcohol consumption.”
The study findings were published in September in Health Psychology, an American Psychological Association journal.
The results of the study depart from prior research, Northwestern reported in announcing the news: Earlier studies concluded that more physically active people drink more overall. But previous studies ask those surveyed about their behavior over the last month. That reliance on memory might falter, said Conroy, professor of preventive medicine and deputy director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
So the research team bought smartphones for each of the 150 people, ages 18 to 89, who participated in the study, Conroy said. They were required to make daily entries of their alcohol consumption and activities over a 21-day period, and this routine was repeated three times over the course of one year. The data was collected between 2010 and 2011, Conroy said.
“In this study, people only have to remember one day of activity or consumption at a time, so they are less vulnerable to memory problems or other biases that come in to play when asked to report the past 30 days of behavior,” Conroy said. “We think this is a really good method for getting around some of those self-report measurement problems.”
Devastation Wrought by Alcohol Abuse
Any illumination of alcohol consumption is useful. The World Health Organization earlier this year released the results of a global report that found one of every 20 people on the planet died from alcohol consumption in 2012. The WHO called a special meeting to urge governments to act rigorously to reduce heavy drinking. Worldwide, alcohol consumption caused nearly 6 percent of deaths. Sixteen percent of all people binge drink.
The Northwestern research was not focused on whether the level of drinking was problematic, but on its association with physical exertion.
One can speculate about why drinking would increase on the same days that exercise increased – perhaps one is used as a reward for the other – but the findings held up across a wide age range. Conroy said it was presumed that study subjects exercised before drinking – “it’s unlikely anyone would get drunk and step on a treadmill,” he mused – but even that bears more research. Learning more about motivation, among other connections, will be needed in order to apply the study findings.
“Insufficient physical activity and alcohol use are both linked to many health problems, and excessive alcohol use has many indirect costs as well,” Conroy told Elements Behavioral Health. “We need to figure out how to use physical activity effectively and safely without having the adverse effects of drinking more alcohol.”
Contrary to a few bogus headlines about the research in the foreign press – “Exercising Makes You Alcoholic,” for instance – the study draws no such conclusions. Another interesting finding: previous drinking and exercise research focused on 18- to 25-year-olds, who “engage in the most problematic drinking,” Conroy said.
“Ours looked at ages 18 to 89, and we tried to see if this association depended on how old people were,” Conroy said. “We found no large differences there. So we think that as we move forward, we’ll want to look at how people regulate different health behaviors across a lifespan.”
Joni Ogle, a licensed social worker and director of Young Adult Programs at Promises West Los Angeles, an Elements Behavioral Health treatment center, cited the “runner’s high” as one way to explain the study results.
“I can see that when endorphins are increased that you feel better and therefore may be experiencing a ‘high’ and want to continue that high with a boost of added drinking,” Ogle said. “I am curious as to how future researchers are really going to measure why the more physically active drink more on those days. Self-reporting when it comes to drinking is always tricky. Addicts tend to minimize; while younger folks tend to embellish, unless in trouble, then they minimize.”
Conroy said that further research is needed before any causal links can be made. He also told Elements an association between physical fitness and alcohol consumption contradicts what is typically found on broader health questions. Most health behaviors regarding diet, physical activity and smoking tend to be found clustered together. If you refrain from smoking, for instance, you are more likely to eat a healthy diet and exercise than if you smoked, Conroy said.
“We see them co-occurring often but in the [examination on a] daily level, it’s the opposite,” Conroy said. “But it may be worth exploring whether physical activity has some unanticipated consequences in some populations. If you were working around a population with substance abuse, would physical activity be a sensible intervention? It may or may not be. This is what we need to understand.”
For the time being, the answer to why these two activities go hand-in-hand on the same days of the week is speculation.
“Perhaps people reward themselves for working out by having more to drink or maybe being physically active leads them to encountering more social situations where alcohol is consumed – we don’t know,” Conroy said in the university’s news announcement. “Once we understand the connection between the two variables, we can design novel interventions that promote physical activity while curbing alcohol use.”