You know your future self well enough to predict you’ll likely imbibe, and perhaps a bit too much, at Oktoberfest. It’s all good, though: Just make sure you keep up with that gym routine. New research, led by the University of Sydney, found moderate exercise can cancel out some of alcohol’s harmful effects, chiefly cancer risks, so long as you’re not a habitual binge-drinker. For men, that means 39 drinks per week would land you in the “harmful drinking” category for this study’s purposes (that's 5+ drinks a day, so fairly generous).
The team of international researchers found that for those who drink alcohol, working out — even at just a moderate intensity and for a paltry 2.5 hours per week — may decrease the risks of dying both from cancer and “all-cause mortality,” which is an umbrella term for deaths from any cause. The team’s conclusions were published in September in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
“Our research suggests that physical activity has substantial health benefits, even in the presence of potentially unhealthy behaviors such as drinking alcohol,” says Emmanuel Stamatakis, the lead study author and an associate professor at the University of Sydney. The research was a collaboration between University of Sydney, University College London, and University of Montreal.
Past studies have drawn direct correlations between alcohol consumption and health outcomes. We know, for example, that drinking alcohol, in general, raises the risk of certain types of cancers, including oropharynx, larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and breast cancers. Not surprisingly, the team’s research concluded that, yes, for those who drank (even within recommended levels, which, for men is an average of 2.4 drinks per day), the risk of death from cancer was 36 percent greater when compared to individuals who never were drinkers.
But for this study, the researchers made it a point to layer in additional factors, things like smoking habits, body mass index, socioeconomic status, as well as exercise patterns in an effort consider alcohol’s broader effects on health.
Stamatakis says alcohol consumption and physical activity work on the same pathway, but in opposite directions. That’s to say alcohol encourages carcinogenesis, the development of cancer, while exercise suppresses it.
The classic approach of looking at each behavior in isolation has stopped researchers from capturing the synergistic effects of two or more behaviors on health, says Stamatakis.
The study isn’t intended to give anybody carte blanche to binge drink and then expect 5K races on the weekends will cancel out all of alcohol’s harmful effects, though. “A lifestyle that includes plenty of incidental daily physical activity, as well as some vigorous exercise, will have immense physical and mental health benefits,” Stamatakis says. “But our findings are not a license to exercise and drink excessively. We only looked at one specific set of health outcomes.” Alcohol-induced liver damage, risk of depression and anxiety, accidents, erratic and aggressive behavior, as well as compromised sexual performance for males are common side effects of drinking that are unlikely to be cancelled out by exercise, Stamatakis says.
The study involved more than 36,000 middle-aged men and women (those who were 40 years or older) over the course of nearly a decade. Of the population involved in the study, 5,735 people died during this period, Stamatakis says.
Those who weren’t physically active had higher mortality patterns. And, approximately 61 percent of the sample didn’t meet the basic physical activity recommendation of 2.5 hours of weekly moderately intense activity, such as brisk walking. About 28 percent of the sample reported no physical activity at all, he says.
“The key message here is to keep physically active and have a balanced lifestyle that involves rich social relationships and friendships, good quality sleep, and a good diet,” Stamatakis says. “Some alcohol from time to time is absolutely fine.”
In sum, while you can’t consider a marathon penance for years of hazardous drinking habits, enjoying a beer or two after work won’t kill you as long as you don’t abandon your workout routine.