Spinning Class: The Key to Staying Sober
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Spinning Class: The Key to Staying Sober


This post was originally published on January 20, 2015.

It’s pretty common knowledge that holding an awkward pose in yoga for minutes at a time, chest pressing 75 pounds of iron or jogging six miles up a seaside cliff will curb stress. Exercise floods our brains with happy endorphins like serotonin and norepinephrine, making it a relatively cheap way to feel good (and sure, look good, too).

Good news: there’s more to it than that. Turns out that in addition to releasing stress and shrinking our waistlines, high levels of activity might also prevent alcohol abuse. Yep.

An Exhaustive Study

See, a study took place in Denmark from 1976 to 2003 that examined the relationship between exercise and alcohol use. More than 18,000 adults in Copenhagen were studied over a period of 20 years, and those with a high level of recreational activity were less likely to need treatment for excessive drinking.

This conclusion was made after participants completed a series of four surveys, which included questions about their level of physical activity during leisure time as well as their medication, smoking and alcohol habits. They were then divvied up into three categories according to their activity levels.

More than four hours of exercise per week put people into the “high” group while two to four hours meant being in the “low” group. The sedentary group was, as you might imagine, composed of couch potatoes who never broke a sweat.

Researchers then took all these questionnaires and cross referenced participant responses with the patients registered in Denmark for having received either inpatient or outpatient treatment for alcohol abuse through 2011. (Guess Denmark doesn’t have patient privacy laws like they do here in the States?)

You Snooze, You Lose

At the end of this study, four percent of the 18,000 subjects—736 people—had been diagnosed with an alcohol problem. There was no differentiation between those with low or high levels of activity—apparently, whether you hit the gym twice a week or four times a week doesn’t matter. If you fall into the low or high activity group, you’re still 30 to 40% less likely to overdo it on booze than the folks napping in front of the TV or chugging beer on the patio.

Those are some big odds.

The study didn’t attempt to find the causal (biological) explanation of the link between exercise and alcohol abuse. Still, Dr. Ulrik Becker of the National Institute of Public Health at the University of Southern Denmark in Copenhagen, who coauthored the study, believes it’s probable that scientists will eventually discover it.

Devil’s Advocate

Oh, but there’s always a dissenter when it comes to good news, isn’t there? In this case, it’s Michael T. French, the director of the Health Economics Research Group at the University of Miami. He did a similar study in 2009 and found that heavy exercisers were actually prone to drink heavily, which obviously is a little embarrassing for the new study. Or the new study is embarrassing for his. Or both maybe?

Ultimately, French thinks that the most recent study out of Copenhagen proves alcohol abuse leads to a sedentary lifestyle, not vice versa. He’s got a point. Not many alcoholics get wasted and then go out for a jog, unless it’s to sprint to the nearest 7-11 to load up on liquor before 2 am.

A Grey Matter

Like any chicken-and-egg question, the correlation between more exercise and less alcohol use is a bit complex. It doesn’t take a team of Danish researchers to know that exercise improves our moods, makes us feel better about ourselves and gives us more energy. Still, who’s to say whether it’s that alcoholism leads to loafing around aimlessly or the exercise that encourages abstinence? Most likely, it’s a combination of the two.

There are, of course, some exceptions to all of this.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.