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Alcohol and exercise - Can you drink and still be in good shape? 

A few years ago my former room mate and I decided to swear off alcohol and quit drinking for a month, not allowing a single drop to pass through our lips. We dubbed this month of sobriety the “Gene Simmons experiment.” For those who don’t know who Gene Simmons is, he is the famous bassist from the rock band, Kiss - you know, the dude with the face paint and the super-long tongue. 

What is interesting about Gene is that he is a complete teetotaler, but also one of the world’s most prolific womanizers. 

He attributes much of his success in both life and love to not touching alcohol and drugs. We figured he was onto something.

So we decided on this month of sobriety to see if going out sober would improve our record with the ladies – the rationale being that it’s better to appear normal and have a normal, sober conversation than being a drunken-zombie creeping around the bar, AND if it would have any other effects on our lives.

It turned out to be a month that changed our lives.

Wait, now before you go thinking. “I thought this is a fitness site, why is he talking about picking up girls?”, let me explain, it changed our lives because by not drinking for a month, we realized just how much alcohol affected our training and even cognitive function.

During that month of sobriety I had some of the best workouts of my life and a level of mental clarity I hadn’t had in years. Now, I was hardly a big drinker to begin with, I was still an exercise junkie, but I was young, and I did like to party. 

After the ‘experiment’ was over, I decided to definitely cut back on the partying and drinking, because I realized just how much better I felt if I didn’t drink much (sure I still have the odd wild one, but these days they are a rarity.)

So, I’d like to share some of the facts with you about alcohol and exercise, and how to limit the damage.

Firstly, how does alcohol work, what does it do inside our bodies?

When you drink alcohol, about a quarter of it is rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream. The remainder makes its way to your intestines where it is gradually absorbed into your bloodstream.

This alcohol-laden blood is then shipped off to your liver where it is broken down (metabolized) - it’s effectively a toxin and your body wants to get rid of it. The average liver is capable of metabolizing about 1 unit every 90 minutes. A unit of alcohol is roughly one shot, an average beer or an average glass of red wine. This rate varies from person to person though, and is affected by things such as fitness level, bodyfat percentage, gender and even ethnicity.

If you drink more than 1 unit every 90 minutes, your liver cannot keep up, a ‘bottle-neck’ type situation is created, and your blood becomes more and more saturated with alcohol. Your central nervous system gets affected by the alcohol that cannot be metabolized in time, and you start to develop a strange, previously unknown level of confidence and start finding ugly girls (or guys) more and more attractive.

What’s also worth noting is that alcohol contains A LOT of energy, 7 calories per gram. That’s more than carbohydrates and protein which contain 4 calories per gram.    

Alcohol is also used rapidly by your body for energy, so it ends up being used preferentially over the carbohydrates and fats already circulating in your blood. Because they end up being unused they are stored as fat.

Alcohol also causes a big insulin release. Insulin spikes have been associated with increased fat storage and difficulty in losing existing fat.

How will alcohol affect your exercise and physique goals?   

- Alcohol can damage muscle cells. Alcohol can also result in prolonged muscle soreness following training, thereby making more recuperation time necessary. 

- Alcohol also affects your endurance abilities, especially when consumed in large quantities. So be aware of this if you’re training for an upcoming race or something like that.

- In addition, alcohol can cause several gastric, digestive and nutritional irregularities by interfering with the absorption of nutrients. Anemia and vitamin B deficiencies can be exacerbated by excessive alcohol consumption.

In addition to the calories and potential fat gain caused by the alcohol (ethanol) itself, drinking can result in the consumption of a massive amount of liquid calories. Just think how much sugar there is in those 10 Rum and cokes you had last weekend….

Lastly, you might end up just end up taking that “no so hot the morning after” guy or girl home. The mental anguish from that alone is enough to upset your training regimen for days…

SOME alcohol can be good for you though.  

Note how I emphasized the word, ‘SOME’, meaning a little, not excessive amounts.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, so if a scotch on the rocks helps you unwind after work, have it. A SMALL amount of alcohol has been shown to have numerous health benefits. Just don’t go wild, stick to 1 or 2.

Red wine has also been shown to have many health benefits and reduces the risks of many diseases such as heart disease, blood clots, atherosclerosis and hypertension, just to name a few.

Choose your poison wisely.

This article was not intended to stop you from drinking, it was just to make you a bit more aware, so that you can make better decisions and be a smarter drinker, or at least limit the damage.

Good choices:

- Whiskey, Brandy, Cognac, Vodka, Tequila (on the rocks or with water or soda). Full of antioxidants and few calories and carbs compared with other brews.

- Red wine (full antioxidants, phenols and helps lower the risk of some of the diseases mentioned above). Has fewer calories than most other brews and only has 5-8g carbs per glass.

Bad choices:

- Beer, contains lots of calories and carbs.

- Anything with a sugary mix like coke, sprite, fanta, red bull orange juice, cranberry etc.

But what if you absolutely have to get drunk and party?

To put it plainly, anything more than 1 or 2 drinks is bad for you, and you are basically ‘poisoning’ your body. But I know that we are only human, so we have to live it up OCCASSIONALLY.

So, if you’re gonna do it, then do it wisely. You want to try and limit the damage, so you need to get the most ‘bang for your buck’ – to get drunk, but with consuming as few calories and other bad things as possible.

Beer is out, you have to drink too many to get the desired effect, and it contains way too many carbs and calories. The same goes for anything with sugary mixes.

Red wine is healthy, but you have to also drink a fair bit to get to your desired level of awesomeness (if you’re a big guy, if you’re a 100lb lady, then maybe not.) 

My recommendation would be to go for the good spirits mentioned above, either as shots, on the rocks, or with water/soda. You don’t need as many to get the desired effect so you are limiting the other collateral damage that goes along with drinking.

The risk of dehydration is obviously still there, so make sure to drink lots of water. Ideally you should drink a glass of water for every alcoholic drink you take. 

I still can’t promise you won’t feel like crap the next day or wake up next to a cave troll though.

So in conclusion, yes it can’t be denied that drinking is bad for us, and we are probably better off avoiding it. But it is however such an integral part of our culture and lifestyle that it’s very hard to get away from, and unless you are willing to be a complete teetotaler, you’re gonna have to have a drink now and then.Just limit the damage by making smart, informed choices.

Decide on what your physique goals are, and make your decisions based on that - if you are an elite athlete looking for the competitive edge, or have seriously lofty physique goals, don’t go near alcohol. 

But, for most people, wanting to just have a great body and still have fun now and then, just limit the damage. You can live a little, just don’t be going out and getting wasted EVERY weekend, you’ll never get in shape doing that..

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Article by: Bryan Hamann.

Bryan is a personal trainer, certified bootcamp instructor, Ironman Triathlete and author of THE PRISON WORKOUT.

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Note: I am not a medical doctor, registered dietician, nurse or other health care practitioner. This information was provided purely for information purposes. It was compiled from my own extensive reading and interest in the subject. It should NEVER replace the advice or direction of your health care practitioner.