Can You “Outrun” Happy Hour? Science Says, Maybe.

Alcohol — the world’s drug of choice. Many use it as a social lubricant, some to “get away” from life’s realities, and others to quench thirst (might I suggest water?) Drinking is part of many social rituals, many of which include exercise and sport. Celebrating a big win, grabbing a beer after a nice hard run — these are all occasions when a nice cold pint seems to taste even better. I know you’ve all seen those commercials where a pack of smiley-faced runners charge up a mountain, only to celebrate with a glistening bottle of Michelob Ultra (only 90 calories!). Cheers to the struggle.

While it may taste good, the data are pretty convincing that alcohol hinders both athletic performance and recovery, and might even impair training gains. This is because alcohol (a depressant and a toxin) impairs muscle protein synthesis, among other metabolic processes, after exercise. In addition, alcohol inhibits lipolysis (fat breakdown) and stimulates lipogenesis (fat formation). We have the term “beer belly” for a reason.

The question “can you outrun a bad diet?” has been posed by many critics of the “eat less more more” advice for weight loss. They claim that even diligent exercisers can’t get away with poor eating habits (particularly those high in refined carbohydrates) and will suffer the metabolic consequences of their dessert binges, treadmill be damned.

If you can’t outrun a bad diet, can you outrun a moderate drinking habit? Put a different way, if you are trying to make gains in your fitness or body composition through exercise, is alcohol intake setting you back, washing away all of your hard effort in a boozy whirlpool?

I’m a critic of the data suggesting that moderate drinking is good for your health. The association studies telling us that people who drink a few times per week live healthier and longer lives isn’t convincing enough — there’s a lot more involved. We need experimental studies to tell us what effects alcohol actually has on metabolic, cardiovascular, and cognitive outcomes to continue the story.

Sometimes, those studies come along. While a recent investigation doesn’t tell us anything in particular bout longevity, what it does provide is a pretty good “real life” scenario of how alcohol intake might influence the benefits you get (or don’t get) from a regular exercise routine. I love a good practical study; one for the masses.

The study, titled “Beer or Ethanol Effects on the Body Composition Response to High-Intensity Interval Training” or “The BEER-HIIT Study” published in Nutrients, aimed to determine the effects of a 10-week HIIT exercise program on body composition and to assess whether the effects would be influenced by a moderate consumption of beer (moderate” in this study meant 5 days/week).

Lets take a look at how they investigated this.

Study Design

A total of 72 participants (35 of them women) completed the study. All were adults (for obvious reasons), non-obese, and not currently involved in a training regimen, taking medications, or pregnant — your “typical” humans.

The participants were split into four different groups: Training + 5.4% beer (T-beer), Training + sparkling water with ethanol (T-ethanol), Training + non-alcohol beer (T-0.0beer), and a Training + sparkling water group (T-water).

Other than the beverages consumed, the groups (with 8 men and women in each) performed the same training (and drinking) regimen. For 10 weeks, they performed 40–65 minutes of HIIT exercise 2 days/week. Training included what is essentially “circuit training” type of stuff — planks, high-knees, rows, battle rope, squats, deadlifts, pushups, and burpees). My one beef with the study is that they didn’t really measure intensity (heart rate) but rather by gauged effort (known as rating of perceived exertion; RPE). RPE correlates with heart rate and V02, but physiological measures are always preferred IMO.

Drinking involved ingesting 330 ml with lunch and another 330 ml with dinner (for men) and 330 ml with dinner (for women). This amount was used to define a “moderate” intake of 2–3 drinks/day for men and 1–2 drinks per day for women.

The study outcomes included body composition analyses such as body mass, height, waist and hip circumference, fat mass, visceral adipose tissue, lean mass, bone mineral density, and fat mass %. Each of these parameters was measured before and after the training/drinking regimen.

Running the Booze Off

Let’s begin with the conclusion — basically, moderate drinking did nothing to “impair” the exercise gains in this study.

For some parameters, even exercise training didn’t cause them to budge at all. After 10 weeks, body mass, BMI, and hip circumference, and, and visceral adipose tissue showed no response. Training did result in some changes in waist circumference and waist to hip ratio.

However, lean mass was increased in response to the training intervention. For all training groups, lean body mass was higher post-intervention — whether they drank alcohol or not. On average, each group increased lean body mass by about 2–3% during the study. #Gainz

A similar result was observed for fat mass and fat mass percent; all training groups reduced FM AND FM% in spite of their alcohol intake. On average, training groups lost about 6.7% fat mass and 7.9% of their total % fat mass.

Another important consideration is that in the non-training groups, even the ones who consumed alcoholic beverages 5 days/week, no changes in body composition occurred. No beer bellies observed here.

I’ll take a direct quote right from the discussion section of the study. “The primary findings of our study are that 10 weeks of HIIT did not have an influence on BM, but this type of training significantly decreased FM and FM percentage and increased LM in healthy adults. These positive effects were not affected by the concomitant regular intake of beer, or its alcohol equivalent, in moderate amounts. Neither HIIT nor beer or alcohol intake influenced adipose tissue distribution or BMD. The lack of effect on BM or BMI was the result of the simultaneous decrease in FM and increase in LM.”

Several interesting things to note about this study. First of all, the training regimen didn’t have an effect on body mass, but did lower fat mass and fat mass percentage. I actually find it surprising that these two parameters improved, since the training only happened twice per week for no more than 70 minutes per session — nothing too fancy, basically in line with the “recommended” amount of weekly exercise. The participants were “untrained” however, so this might be the reason for the improvement. Many studies of HIIT suggest it is superior to moderate intensity aerobic exercise for reducing fat mass and increasing lean body mass.

The exercise training in this study was also effective enough to increase lean body mass, even with just 2x/week training. Again, this is probably due to the fact that participants weren’t training and probably have favorable responses to any increase in physical activity or training regimen.

Surprisingly, the improved fat mass and fat mass % wasn’t negatively affected by consuming a pretty decent amount of alcohol throughout training. Maybe it was the timing? I’d suspect that if beer was consumed immediately after training (maybe it was, with dinner?) then results might be different. Since the alcohol was consumed twice a day with meals and not as a “recovery beverage” (something I don’t suggest), perhaps muscle growth wasn’t impaired as much as it otherwise would have been. The authors note that this might be the case in that “the results agree with the data in a recent meta-analysis…that HIIT is a useful tool to reduce FM and FM percentage” and that “these positive effects were not influenced by the concomitant regular intake of beer, or its alcohol equivalent, in moderate amounts.”

What to conclude from these results? I think they provide a practical take on the fact that a moderate alcohol intake probably isn’t harmful in terms of its impact on fitness. If you want to exercise and grab a pint (or two) with friends, go ahead. Based on results of this study alone, it won’t hamper your exercise gains.

Obviously, there are other outcomes to consider — muscle recovery, glycogen restoration, sleep, etc — and this study didn’t measure them all. Perhaps a more intense training regimen would leave no room for a little extra alcohol; at the extremes of performance, seconds and ounces matter, and anything not contributing directly to performance (goals) is necessarily detracting from them.

Looking at the study from a bird’s-eye-view, I don’t think it’s either pro- or anti-alcohol in its results. The idea that it does reinforce? Exercise works, whether you decide to have a drink or not.

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