Alcohol, fitness, and our health

by Rishi Haria

The recent ban on alcohol has hit many people hard during this lockdown era. Being stuck at home all day leaves us with very little to do in our free time except binge watching TV shows. So I can understand a bit of escapism with a few drinks at home from time to time. Is there a silver lining to this ban for our health, at a time where keeping our immune systems strong can be the difference between life and death for some people? I believe it should be our own choice as to whether or not we drink, even during the coronavirus outbreak. 

Optimal health has never been as important as it is now for my generation. Although I am not a doctor, I know what it takes for most people to improve their health. Seeing a daily coronavirus death toll every morning on social media has become the norm for us all. Nobody wants to be under lockdown, but we all understand and necessarily agree with the logic behind it. The silver lining is that the extra time spent at home can enable us to reevaluate certain areas of our lives, including keeping ourselves healthy. If any of us are unfortunate enough to catch the virus it is important that we make sure we are as healthy as possible in order to fight it off. Not everyone has obvious underlying health conditions, but the average person is under exercised, eats badly and fails to keep their immune system in a peak state.  

Handsome bartender making drinking and cocktails at a counter

Part of the fight against Covid-19 should start with taking care of ourselves. Eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, sleep well, control stress levels, and live a healthy lifestyle. 

Alcohol has barely been a part of my life for many years now. I have been drunk just once in the past 12 months. I have become such a lightweight that my tab was as small as my muscles are becoming due to the closure of the gyms, and I couldn’t even make it to midnight… Having kids definitely changes things. I cannot say that I miss it much at all. I started to feel healthier and more energetic once I put those heavy party days of my youth behind me. Not that I am exactly old, but after reaching the end of my 20s (I am 33 now) I felt that it was the right time to say goodbye to hangovers. Some might call me boring. Others might call me very boring!

Apart from feeling terrible, what are the actual negative effects on our health and fitness? It is a question that would be relevant to a lot of people that try to keep a healthy lifestyle but also like to enjoy a drink or two…. or three. The biggest concern from chronic alcohol consumption during a virus pandemic is that it can hinder our immune system’s ability to fight off infections. Most people that drink alcohol are likely to do so socially as opposed to being a full on alcoholic. So let’s discuss the other less depressing but still important ramifications from alcohol consumption. 

There are 7 calories per gramme of alcohol, 4 calories per gramme of carbohydrate, 4 calories per gramme of protein, and 9 calories per gramme of fat.  When you consume too many calories it can result it weight gain regardless of where these surplus calories come from. The alcohol calories themselves do not directly convert to body fat. The alcohol gets absorbed by the bloodstream and then goes to the liver. Our body will start to use the alcohol as its primary energy source because we cannot store alcohol in the body. The problem is that alcohol slows down fat oxidation. Carbs and dietary fats are now directed to storage rather than being burned off. More often than not we tend to choose less healthy/higher calorie options when our inhibitions are lowered. Not only are we eating too much because of the alcohol, our ability to burn off the extra calories is reduced while there is alcohol in our system. This is why eating high fat junk foods is such a bad idea when you drink alcohol. A chicken breast salad with no dressing anyone?

There is no real physiological benefit of drinking more than a glass of wine in one sitting. It is the least satiating nutrient that you can grab your hands on. It even makes you feel hungrier in most cases. 200 calories that you get from a beer will not suppress your appetite more than 200 calories worth of a tuna steak. If you use up too much of your daily calories on alcohol then it leaves little room for real nutritious food, unless you’re willing to exceed your normal calorie intake. Of course this will lead to weight gain based on the reasons discussed on the first point. On the plus side, a glass of red wine a day is said to improve heart health by reducing blood clots and lowering blood sugar.

The woman running in a gym. Concept for exercising, fitness and healthy lifestyle

Excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time can reduce testosterone in men by up to 45%. Reduced testosterone has a terrible effect of metabolism, ability to build muscle, libido, and overall energy levels. Effects on testosterone is less of an issue for women. The negative effects on your liver health should be a concern for both genders when it comes to binge drinking. If you want to keep improving your health and fitness then excessive drinking should be avoided.

When we train it’s important for our recovery that we are able to rebuild and build muscle effectively. This takes place within the process of protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is strongly reduced when you consume a lot of alcohol. Although adequate protein consumption can help offset some of the negative effects from alcohol, protein synthesis will still be affected. Cutting down on alcohol from my life made it much easier to take my training to the next level. 

The hangover from drinking will always make training the next day an arduous task. I would recommend planning a rest day after a night out drinking. It is hard to get a quality night’s rest because our rapid eye movement sleep (REM) sleep gets shortchanged with alcohol in our system. REM is the period of sleep where people dream and rejuvenates us mentally. Some people use a late night drink as a sleeping aid. While this can potentially help you fall asleep, the quality of your sleep will be disturbed. This is the reason why we wake up feeling groggy after drinking the day before. Marijuana also reduces REM sleep interestingly enough.

The purpose of this article is not to try put people off from drinking. Far from it. It is just important to know how it can affect our health and fitness goals. Moderation is key and when we want to truly maximise our fitness and health progress, it’s probably better to cut down our alcohol intake as much as possible. A couple glasses of wine on the occasional date night with my wife still has its appeal, even to me!

Rishi Haria, [email protected] Fitness professional

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