The University of Sydney launched a collaborated study with the University College of London and the University of Montreal to find out whether exercise could potentially reduce the damaging effects of drinking alcohol.
The study was published in in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and was the first of its kind. Data was drawn from health surveys conducted in the UK between 1994 and 2006, which had previously analyzed the how much impact physical activity could have on health after alcohol consumption.
How were drinking levels defined?
In the UK and Australia, it is recommended that men have no more than 2.4 units of alcohol per day and women have no more than 1.6 units per day to stay healthy, even though these limits are still linked to a 13% increase in mortality and a 36% increase in the cancer development when compared to teetotalers.
In the study, drinking levels were defined as:
- Never drinkers = abstained for life
- Ex-drinkers = Previously consumed alcohol, but quit for any reason
- Moderate drinkers = Up to 17 alcoholic units per week for men and up to 11 units for women
- Hazardous drinkers = 17 to 39 alcoholic units per week for men and 11 to 29 units for women
- Harmful drinkers = More than 39 alcoholic units per week for men and more than 28 units for women.
What damage can alcohol consumption cause?
Moderate alcohol consumption increases the risk of developing cancer by as much as 38% and harmful consumption increases the risk to 74%.
Alcohol has previously been linked to causing liver, colon, rectum, breast, and throat cancer, with 5.8% of all cancer-related deaths being linked to alcohol consumption worldwide.
Alcohol abuse is also linked to significant health problems, including fatality, and has been known to cause societal damage.
Can exercise reduce the damage?
The study found that physical activity was able to reduce the risk of death from all causes, including cancer, significantly, with the exception of those who were consuming harmful amounts per week.
The weekly recommended activity levels include 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, or 300 minutes of light-intensity activity, such as cycling, walking, yoga, and gentle swimming.
Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis from the University of Sydney and the senior author of the study said: “Our research suggests that physical activity has substantial health benefits even in the presence of potentially unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking alcohol. Among physically inactive people, we saw that the risk for cancer and all-cause mortality was higher, even at relatively low levels of drinking. We also noticed a dose-response relationship between drinking alcohol and cancer deaths, that is the risk of cancer deaths increases as alcohol consumption increases. But this was not the case among physically active people.”
What does this mean?
Dr. Stamatakis says that the study does not suggest that regular exercise gives people a license to drink, but rather offers a healthy and compelling solution for those who already consume alcohol.
“Given that so many people do drink alcohol, our study gives yet another compelling reason to encourage and empower people to be physically active and ask policy makers to invest in physical activity-friendly environments”, he said.