Alcohol and fitness are terms we do not typically use in the same sentence. Yet, we have been told to give up alcohol if we want to get fit for the longest time. It is terrible for us, makes us fat, and melts our muscle mass. But are these claims accurate, or is the truth somewhere else?
Before we move on, let us be very clear here. This is not about making excuses for drinking alcohol. Instead, this blog aims to help you understand the impact alcohol has on your workout routine and how to keep the right balance. So let us dive in.
Alcohol and Fitness - Is it as bad as people say?
Prevailing wisdom suggests that alcohol is the absolute enemy to fitness and good health. Claims often revolve around alcohol being fattening, muscle-wasting, or something like these.
But the truth is, alcohol is not that bad. First, alcohol itself is not fattening. We need to be in a calorie surplus to gain fat, which can not occur simply because we have had a few alcoholic drinks. We should account for alcohol calories, but this does not mean that having a few beers with your friends will make you fat. Significant weight gain is a process that occurs because of many poor eating and lifestyle habits.
Second, alcohol does not impact muscle protein synthesis, testosterone levels, or recovery much. In fact, small to moderate amounts of alcohol might be good for measures of insulin sensitivity and similar. So, do not be afraid that having a couple of drinks will lead to prolonged muscle soreness or poor performance in the gym.
Still, it is essential to note that too much alcohol can be harmful, so moderation is key. For example, having too much alcohol can inhibit muscle protein synthesis, prolong recovery, and suppress testosterone. Plus, too much alcohol can lead to a hangover, significantly impacting your productivity, motivation, and ability to push yourself hard in the gym.
But what is too much alcohol? One person's definition of moderate alcohol consumption may differ greatly from others. According to Vertava Health, consuming seven or more drinks per week is considered excessive drinking for women, and 15 drinks or more per week is considered heavy drinking for men.
Three Tactics to balance Alcohol with Fitness
1. Account for Alcohol Calories
Alcohol is a macronutrient that carries 7.1 calories per gram. But aside from that, we also have to keep sugars in mind. For example, a cocktail might seem harmless, but some are loaded with hundreds of calories per glass. Beer is also rich in calories, with most brands offering around 40-45 calories per 100 ml. So, count the calories when planning to go out for drinks.
2. Drink in moderation
The best thing you can do to enjoy alcohol and still make good progress at the gym is to practice moderation. In other words, this means to have a drink or two and call it a night. Small amounts of alcohol will not have much of an impact on your recovery, testosterone, or well-being in the following day.
3. Go for low-calorie Drinks
Not all alcoholic beverages are created the same, and some are better for fitness-oriented people. Specifically, you should go for alcoholic drinks that primarily consist of ethanol without extra carbs or fats. Spirits like vodka, tequila, whiskey, gin, and bourbon are always good options. Dry wines are also low in calories.
If you are into combining alcohol with soda (for example, vodka with juice or Red Bull), get sugar-free soda to save up extra calories. The mixers add most sugars; if you like your drinks with Orange Juice, Coke, or Red Bull.
Alcohol is not like Alcohol
A recent study was published in July 2021 called: Got Beer? A Systematic Review of Beer and Exercise
According to the researcher, a low-ABV beer (less than 4% alcohol by volume) can even be effective as a post-workout hydrator. Beer has carbohydrates and some sodium, whereas water does not, which could be beneficial post-exercise.
However, once you go over 4% alcohol content or have more than one or two 12-ounce (0.35 liter) low-ABV beers, that is where the benefits decline. Risk of higher water loss, reduced muscle gains, less than optimal training, and potentially increased body fat.
What about Dry January?
Dry January began in 2012 as public health campaign initiated by an organization called Alcohol Change UK. The campaign's slogan was "ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days," and it is a one-month challenge focused on the benefits of an alcohol-free life. You can read more about the campaign here. And to put it into their words:
It is not about giving anything up. It is about getting something back. Get your fun back. Get your energy back. Get your calm back.
Why participate in Dry January?
The truth is drinking alcohol can negatively impact our bodies and performance when it is not consumed in moderation. Our body and performance are mostly affected by the caloric surplus of (junk) food or by not getting enough hours of sleep rather than drinking alcohol. However, a month without booze could have some potential benefits for your fitness journey.
Cutting down on alcohol calories gives you the margin to eat more real food and add a wider variety of nutrients to your diet. It is also proven that you are getting better quality sleep; therefore, you feel less tired during heavy workouts. Ultimately, it lowers your sugar intake since many alcoholic beverages are quite high in refined sugar.
How to complete a month without alcohol?
Define your why.
Everything starts with the "why," as Simon Sinek once said. To complete a month without alcohol, consider why you are taking this challenge seriously. Is it because you see it as a detox opportunity; have you noticed that alcohol negatively impacts your physical performance and progress; or are you just curious to see how it feels to be completely sober in social events? Having a clear intention before starting something is very important. Think about your "why."
Plan your social activities.
If a certain situation or a specific group of people makes you want to drink, it does not sound like a great place to be. But have we not been quarantined enough? Those reading this article probably enjoy drinking a glass of wine or a refreshing gin tonic. But under no circumstance should we feel forced to do it! Instead, let friends and family know about your intentions and encourage them to keep you accountable. Better yet, enlist someone to do the challenge with you.
Find alcoholic-free beverages you enjoy.
Quitting on drinking might be tough but substituting alcohol with something you still like makes it way easier. So when you crave a drink or cocktail after a long week, reach for alcohol-free beverages like sparkling water, soda, or virgin drinks—basically, nonalcoholic beer, wine, or cocktail. But, and here it comes, some brands still contain a tiny percentage of alcohol. So if you have no idea what to order, try the following:
- Kombucha: A healthy nonalcoholic alternative to natural wine could be Kombucha, a fizzy sweet and sour drink made with tea with multiple health benefits thanks to its probiotics. Kombucha is often compared to natural wine because they pass through the same fermentation process.
- Mocktails: Who said that cocktails have a complex and balanced taste only because of the alcohol they contain? Mocktails can achieve the same harmonious blend of acidity, sweetness, and bitterness as regular cocktails. Mocktails based on natural fruit juices and do not contain sugary syrups can also be very nutritious.
- Alcohol-free beers: If you cannot give up on the taste of your favorite beer, you can look at a 0-alcohol version of it. In the last couple of years, numerous beer brands have created beverages without alcohol that are equally refreshing and tasty.
To sum up...
It is okay to enjoy a glass of alcohol now and then; be reasonable and drink in moderation. Think of the extra added sugar by the mixers, which might get avoided. Bear in mind, however, drinking alcohol as a regular pattern can negatively affect your performance in the gym. Consider campaigns like "Dry January" to kick start the New Year, detox from the Christmas booze, and focus on your fitness goals.
It does not have to be all or nothing regarding alcohol. To build the body you want, you need commitment and dedication, but balance is also key. After all, remember that you can only have long-term results if your healthy changes become lifetime habits.