Pictures of Usain Bolt celebrating his Olympic success by partying in East London brought to mind some questions about alcohol's effects on exercise. Obviously, Bolt didn't indulge until he'd addressed the small matter of Olympic domination, but the average gym goer doesn't have an Olympic event to train for. As such, they probably want to have the odd drink now and then without worrying about undoing all their work. So what's the final word on alcohol and exercise?
Alcohol is a deeply ingrained part of British life, and a real point of struggle for many of my clients. Now your bog standard fitness blogger will tackle this issue with something as useful and insightful as: 'Drinking is bad? Mmkay.' Or: 'It's a simple choice between being fat and unhealthy, or not drinking.'
But in truth, it's not. For many it's a choice between socialising with their friends or not (the glib, pious personal trainer answer to this would be 'get new friends').
For others it's a choice between progressing in their career or not - ask any city professional where the best networking gets done and the most strategic relationships are solidified, and they'll tell you it's over drinks.
Booze is a social lubricant, a rapport-building shortcut, and the lynchpin of just about any social occasion. So as trainers are we living in the real world when we tell our clients not to drink? I don't think so.
I grew up in Ireland, which is effectively the international school for binge drinking, so this is a subject I know a little about. So do I think people need to cut out alcohol to get in great shape? No.
The negative effects of reasonable alcohol consumption have, in my humble opinion, been overstated in the fitness world (also, given the fact that when any group of fitness professionals get together it tends to be as anarchic and alcohol fuelled as any office knees-up, it's pretty hypocritical).
I've done eight weeks totally booze free, and honestly I can't say that it was worth it. That's my opinion, but the research seems to back me up. The oft -touted testosterone sapping effects for example, are so minimal as to be insignificant unless you are drinking heavily or daily. One study showed a 6.8% drop in testosterone following three weeks drinking three beers a day every day. I don't advocate drinking every day. Another showed a more significant reduction for 16 hours only after the equivalent of 10 beers.
There is even some research to suggest that moderate drinking can improve insulin sensitivity (But what's moderate? That's another story)...
The biggest issue with alcohol is it affects the liver in a way that causes any other calories you consume to be more readily stored as fat. This is compounded by the fact that we tend to make more indulgent food choices when we drink. I believe poor food choices while drinking or hungover have a greater impact on the waistline than the alcohol itself.
So, how can we minimise the negative effects of alcohol while still enjoying the odd drink?
I'm not saying you should drink as much as you like and there won't be consequences. But you're probably going to, so here are my suggestions:
Keep it to once a week
On the day you are going to drink, consume as little fat and carbohydrates as possible. Stick to protein sources like chicken and to green veg
Alternate alcoholic drinks with sparkling water. The bubbles slow you down more than still water would
Don't make stupid food choices the next day, get right back on track with eating proper food and keep it lower carb
Stick to low sugar drinks - dry white wines or spirits. If you're having mixers make them sugar-free
Though please don't take this as carte blanche to drink as much as you want. Binge drinking is neither healthy nor clever. It can be addictive, and, as importantly, it can cause you to sleep with ugly people. If you don't do it, you won't have to deal with the consequences...