Effects of drinking alcohol can be offset with exercise

September 9, 2016 Providence Health Team

You drank last night. You ran three miles today.

Congratulations. You have a slightly lower risk of contracting a deadly disease, such as an alcohol-related cancer, according to a new study out of the United Kingdom.

The study examined a set of British health surveys that involved more than 36,000 people aged 40 and over, of whom 5,735 died. Investigators categorized the people in the survey according to their alcohol consumption – ex-drinkers, occasional drinkers, harmful drinkers, etc. – and how much they exercised.

Researchers said they found that people who exercised within recommended levels lowered or even nullified their cancer risks.

The recommended levels of exercise were based on a 2010 statement from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences. The statement declared all healthy adults ages 18 to 65 should:

  • Take part in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, or
  • 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activities, or
  • An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercise

“Our results provide an additional argument for the role of (physical activity) as a means to promote the health of the population even in the presence of other less healthy behaviors,” the researchers wrote.

Drinking and mortality

The study doesn’t mean it’s healthy to drink heavily, researchers emphasized.

They said they saw that inactive persons who drank alcohol were more likely to contract cancer than nondrinkers – an association that other studies have also made. And they said their results showing a reduced cancer risk applied “up to a hazardous level of drinking.”

The researchers defined hazardous drinking as 8 to 20 U.S. Standard Drinks a week for women and 21 to 49 a week for men. Higher levels of drinking are rated as “harmful.”

“We found a direct association between alcohol drinking and all-cause mortality, with ex-drinkers and drinkers at harmful level showing a clearly higher risk of all-cause mortality, compared with never-drinkers,” the authors wrote.

But considering the link with cancer starts at a relatively low level of alcohol consumption, they wrote, their findings have great public health relevance.

Further reading

The study, “Does physical activity moderate the association between alcohol drinking and all-cause, cancer and cardiovascular diseases mortality? A pooled analysis of eight British population cohorts,” was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The exercise guidelines, “The ABC of Physical Activity for Health: a consensus statement from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science,” is published on the U.S. National Institutes of Health website.

For an overview of exercise guidelines that health experts suggest you follow, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Physical Activity Basics page.

Getting an appropriate amount of exercise is healthy for many reasons, and it’s also healthy not to drink to levels that can be hazardous to your health. Talk to your health care provider if you’d like guidance about how much exercise is right for you, or if you’re concerned about how much you drink.

Providence has many resources that can be helpful. For example, here is a page from our health library about alcohol abuse and dependence, including a set of questions meant to help you determine if you have a problem. And here is a page on how to get—and stay—physically active.

To schedule a visit with a Providence provider, please consult our directory.

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