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Health & Fit: The Real Difference Between Seltzer, Club Soda, and Sparkling Water

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More often than not, after emerging from the woods into the parking lot of your local mountain bike trail system, you can count on being greeted by a group of fellow riders with their hatches down and beers in hand. Cyclocross race drinking is certainly well promoted, plus, in the Tour de France’s early days, it wasn’t unusual for riders to spike their bidons with a shot of brandy. And, there are even bikepacking routes where the craft breweries are heralded as much as the hero dirt.

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This is all to say that while alcohol isn’t the best hydration strategy, it’s certainly woven into the fabric of cycling culture. And as it turns out, the connection between fitness and happy hour might be a lot stronger than you think. Regular exercisers drink more, a new study found, and it’s not just college-aged athletes who are saying cheers more often.

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The Study, Explained

The research, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, examined data from more than 38,000 healthy people—ranging in age from 20 to 86—who were enrolled in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study.

For grouping people into alcohol consumption patterns, those sipping three or fewer drinks per week in the 18 to 64 age category were considered for this study as being light drinkers; up to seven weekly drinks for those assigned female at birth and 14 for those assigned male at birth was moderate; and drinking above these numbers placed participants in the heavy group.

The study’s findings? There was a robust link between higher cardio fitness and higher alcohol consumption among the general population. This was determined based on cardiorespiratory fitness metrics, such as VO2 max determined with a treadmill test to exhaustion and self-reported exercise habits. For those assigned female at birth, being highly fit doubled their odds of being a moderate or heavy drinker. For those assigned male at birth, their odds increased by 63 percent. (Those assigned female and male at birth who had moderate fitness levels were 58 percent and 42 percent more likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers, respectively.) It’s worth noting that, based on a questionnaire to suss out possible alcoholism, 13 percent of the study participants met the threshold for alcohol dependence.

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Keep in mind, this study is only able to demonstrate a correlation and does not prove causation, so we can’t say for certain that being more active causes someone to drink more. It also relied on self-reported alcohol intake, which can introduce errors in the data collected, since people typically don’t report what they drink (or eat, in other studies) with 100-percent accuracy. And, by studying only healthy participants, we don’t know if less “fit” people who are working out more to try and get in better shape are also more likely to consume additional alcohol. There can also be some disagreements about what should be classified as a “light,” “moderate,” or “heavy” drinker.

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The Connection Between Alcohol Consumption and Higher Fitness Levels

You might think that the link between physical fitness and alcohol consumption is surprising, because, after all, don’t modern-day riding buffs tend to drink more kale smoothies and kombucha as part of an overall healthy lifestyle?

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“While we didn’t explore underpinning mechanisms in this paper, the psychological literature has reported there is a ‘licensing effect,’ where meeting one’s goals—e.g., running a 10K—gives a ‘license’ to indulge in a ‘vice’ behavior—e.g., drinking,” Kerem Shuval, Ph.D., lead author of the study and member of The Cooper Institute tells Bicycling. This is the same rationale as eating a greasy pizza after a hard-charging ride. The act of working up a sweat subconsciously gives you the green light to indulge. This study does suggest that people can be prone to drinking more on days when they are more physically active.

Also at play here could be personality traits.

“Exercise training may reinforce the same sensation-seeking behavior that leads people to drink,” says J. Leigh Leasure, Ph.D., director of the Brain Health & Plasticity Lab at the University of Texas at Austin.

Her research has linked both exercise and drinking behavior to higher levels of sensation-seeking, which is a trait that floods the brain with dopamine.

“To extend the good feelings from an exercise-induced dopamine increase, people might drink alcohol after their workout,” she says. “Also, both activities are often done socially, and social interactions can also be rewarding, so there is the potential to combine three feel-good activities by working out and drinking with friends.”

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Leasures’s work has also outlined at least five motives for coupling exercise and alcohol:

  • Work hard-play hard
  • Socializing
  • Stress relief
  • Body image
  • Guilt

So, a stressful race may lead to drinking afterward, or feelings of guilt from drinking too much may lead to exercising more. But Leasure says she and her team don’t yet have all the data needed to fully define these relationships.

There is also an association between athletics and alcohol promotion use in many countries, including in the United States. Alcohol beverage companies advertise heavily during televised sporting events and provide key sponsorship for many sporting leagues. For some bike races and events, beer and other alcohol companies provide some degree of direct financial support and even hand out samples. Research has documented an association between exposure to alcohol advertising and subsequent alcohol consumption, so it may be possible that athletes—including cyclists—are influenced by the advertising or sponsorship efforts of alcohol beverage companies.

The Impact of Alcohol on Performance

Hitting the trails after consuming alcohol won’t do your ride any favors, but Dan Benardot, Ph.D., R.D., author of Advanced Sports Nutrition and professor of practice in the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University, says that any amount of alcohol is a performance dead end.

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“Just a single drink a day can lower reaction time and coordination and negatively impact energy metabolism,” Benardot tells Bicycling.

He adds that alcohol is pro-inflammatory, which can limit proper recovery and the benefits you are trying to get from exercising, and when consumed in high amounts, can increase magnesium excretion from the body, which negatively impacts muscle functioning.

Some research also shows that alcohol can impact your rate of postworkout muscle protein synthesis—the process by which muscles grow and repair after exercise and a notable marker of recovery.

Knocking back an ice-cold beer after a ride could help out your rehydration efforts, but only if you’re opting for something lower in alcohol and not too much of it. A systematic review on beer consumption related to exercise published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that beer, particularly lower alcoholic options with less than 4 percent ABV, can work as a postworkout hydrator, since you get fluid as well as some carbs and sodium.

But does that mean beer can replace your sports drink or regular water? Not so fast. Once you go over 4 percent alcohol content or have two or more drinks, the study authors say that is where the benefits start to diminish.

“Alcohol is a diuretic, so you just end up peeing away more than you consume, [and] that ultimately leaves you even more dehydrated,” says Benardot.

Drinking any postride beer with other non-alcoholic fluids is recommended, but ultimately Benardot says beer should not be considered an adequate recovery beverage. There are other ways to rehydrate—which could include non-alocholic beer, water, or a sports drink—that won’t require searching for a designated driver.

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How to Tell If You Might Have a Dependence on Alcohol

While it’s not an issue to celebrate a ride well done with one or two cold ones or enjoy an occasional glass of Chardonnay with dinner, if you meet any of the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence—such as skipping activities to drink, regularly drinking more than you intend to, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms—outlined here by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it’s best to seek help.

Admittedly, a more moderate and controlled alcohol intake is hard to slot into the “healthy” or “unhealthy” category because there’s so much wavering evidence regarding its impact on health. However, moderate consumption of no more than one to two drinks a day—a single drink is typically defined as the equivalent to 12 ounces of beer; 5 ounces of wine; or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits—can reduce the risk for heart disease, and possibly cognitive decline and type 2 diabetes as well, some research suggests.

Though moderate drinking may have some heart health advantages, this report suggests the risk for certain cancers from daily drinking may outweigh these benefits, and therefore increase your risk for early death overall.

There are just so many nuances concerning alcohol and health to be able to make any firm conclusion based on the available evidence from observational studies. For instance, when alcohol is consumed as part of a healthy dietary pattern, such as the Mediterranean diet, it seems to carry less health risk than when consumed as part of less healthy diet.

Different forms of alcohol may also have different impacts on health. Red wine’s many antioxidants may give it an edge over less antioxidant-rich spirits and lagers. Context also plays a role: Do you drink alone or as part of a social setting with your ridding buddies? Do you spread out your intake throughout the week? (FWIW, this might be less risky than going all-in on one or two occasions, say after a big race.)

If you do think you may have a dependence on alcohol, don’t hesitate to reach out for help from family, friends, a primary care doctor, or someone in the mental health field, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or substance abuse counselor.

You can also call SAMHSA’s National Helpline —1-800-662-HELP (4357)—which is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service for those facing mental and/or substance use disorders.

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