I take care of adults in primary care and I treat addictions. So when I was sent a journal article titled “Daily Physical Activity and Alcohol Use Across the Adult Lifespan,” it piqued my interest. This paper describes the drinking and exercise habits of 150 largely white, low-risk, community-dwelling adults (meaning it didn’t include people who were in the hospital or a nursing home) in central Pennsylvania. In this study, volunteers used a smartphone to record their daily drinking and exercise habits in 3-week blocks. This smartphone technique made it possible to get good information and to analyze daily variations for each individual. What is clear from the analysis is that people tend to drink more alcohol on days when they exercise more. This is true whether they’re young, old, male, or female.
This is not a study of problem drinkers or risky drinkers, nor of people with alcohol use disorders (what we used to call alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence). This is also not a study of the effect of an intervention to change lifestyle behavior. That is to say, this study does not tell me what happens if I advise a patient to exercise more or to drink less. The study also does not suggest that if you decide to exercise more, it’s likely you will drink more. It is solely an observational study, not a study of change over time.
These are healthy people in general. The mode and median number of drinks per day was zero. That is to say, among this group, there was no drinking at all on half or more of the days recorded. So the results may have been different in a different population (for instance, a more economically challenged or urban population). The results of a similar study, I expect, would be different were it conducted among a high-risk group; for example, people working to drink less or exercise more might engage in a “virtuous cycle” whereby the enjoyment of a sense of more energy, less fatigue, or better physical strength would provide the power to make further healthy choices. Increased exercise might be linked to decreased drinking in this kind of population.
The challenge of making — and keeping — healthy lifestyle changes
What I’ve observed in my practice is that significant changes in health-related behaviors travel in packs: people who adopt healthier drinking habits (for instance, reducing their intake to one drink per day if female or two per day if male, on average) also get off the couch, walk more, lose a pound or two, and generally pay more attention to their health. The challenge for them — and me — is to sustain these healthy changes.
There is a lot of seriously unhealthy sedentariness among adults in this country. Many people do not move around this planet under their own steam other than to go to the car, fridge, or couch. No joke. Hours are spent every day sitting in front of a lit screen. We come home from work, having been typing and mousing, straining our neck and back and keyboarding muscles, only to collapse on the couch to click around on the remote. Maybe we’re tense, so we have a drink. When it’s time to go to bed, we’re not physically tired, so we’ll have a few more drinks. So we won’t sleep efficiently (because alcohol disrupts healthy sleep cycles). And then we’ll do it all again the next day.
Making even a small sustainable dent in this cycle can be challenging. The positive effects may not be evident quickly. Only patience and commitment are rewarded. But the rewards, accumulating bit by bit, can be great.
A few ways an “exercise prescription” can make a difference
Although this study wasn’t intended to look at addiction, I’d like to mention the role of exercise in the treatment of mood disorders and addiction. There is evidence that aerobic and muscle-building exercise have positive effects on depression; research is ongoing on their effects on addiction. The attractive aspects of a sensible “exercise prescription” include its relative “safety profile” (meaning lack of negative side effects), its known positive effects on brain health, and the ability to customize it to whatever a person’s favorite activity might be. Of course, pacing oneself is paramount so as not to over-train or sustain injury. Some of the changes in the central nervous system due to exercise — for instance, increases in some dopamine activity (similar to the effects of intoxicants) enhanced blood flow, and glial cell proliferation — may also be related to improvements in mood and cognitive function.
People who have substance use disorders often suffer from a lack of joy (other than the chemical high) and from isolation. Isolation both permits the use of drugs or alcohol without bothering others, and may drive the use of them as a salve for loneliness. So combatting isolation is part of addressing addiction. Exercise (in groups) is a pro-social activity: the sense of community, and the positive emotional impact of interpersonal contact (that is, the simple joy of being with others), may be essential ingredients of getting — or staying — on the road to recovery.