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Not only does a sedentary lifestyle increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and early death, it appears to also increase the risk of the development of an alcohol use disorder, according to a study released by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Of the 5,000 study participants, it was found that between 84 and 88 percent who reported working out infrequently or not at all were more likely to present with at least two criteria for an alcohol use disorder as compared to those who maintained a regular exercise habit.
It’s important to note that, while the study showed a correlation between inactivity and alcohol use disorders, it didn’t not show a direct cause. That is, it would be incorrect to state that sedentary lifestyle caused alcohol use disorders – or heart disease, diabetes, or early death. At this stage, the research simply shows that people who are sedentary exhibit higher rates of these issues as compared to those who exercise regularly.
April Joy Damian is a doctoral student at the Bloomberg School and one of the study authors. She said: “Because the NSAL study was essentially a snapshot that was taken at one point in time, we can’t say that engaging in physical activity will prevent people from developing alcohol use disorder or that alcohol use disorder can be treated with physical activity. Given that alcohol use disorder has a high rate of co-occurrence for depression and anxiety, it merits further study all around”.
To complicate things further, there have been other studies that support the notion that people who exercise regularly are more likely to drink more alcohol on the days they worked out as compared to the days they didn’t. Another study suggested that people who exercised regularly were more likely to get positive benefits from drinking wine, like better cholesterol levels.
So who is right, and what should this study mean to you and your habits?
Let’s start by taking a look at what we know to be true. For example, exercise is beneficial. Engaging in cardiovascular activity (e.g., exercise that causes the heart rate to increase) and weight-bearing exercises are good choices for a number of reasons. They can help to burn excess calories, which can contribute to positive weight management. They can improve mood and increase the ability to sleep soundly, which also improves mood. They can improve bone strength, flexibility, muscle strength, and overall physical wellness and ability. As long as exercise is done safely, there are few drawbacks and plenty of positive results that come with a regular regimen.
We also know that alcohol is a toxic substance. Though some studies suggest that there may be minimal benefit to some people who drink a small of alcohol each day (that is, about half a serving of alcohol or less), experts do not suggest starting to drink if one does not already ingest this much alcohol each day and warn against the dangers of drinking too much, pointing out that “beneficial use” quickly turns into “potentially hazardous use” with even a single drink of alcohol once a day.
We probably didn’t need researchers to tell us that if we don’t exercise and drink more than a few alcoholic beverages each day, we may be at higher risk of developing certain disorders, including an alcohol use disorder, than if we exercised more and drank less.
There’s one important factor to note: No matter what the studies say nor how sedentary someone is, an alcohol use disorder can only start if someone picks up a drink. Even if a study says that you may be more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder if you are sedentary, if you have a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, or if you experienced trauma or have a co-occurring mental health disorder, you will not necessarily develop an alcohol use problem. Likewise, you could workout every day for hours, have no genetic history of substance abuse to speak of, and have no signs or mental health issues for any reason, and you may still develop an alcohol use disorder.
In short, nothing is fated. Even if you have all the risk factors for the development of a drug or alcohol use disorder, you can choose your future and opt out of drug and alcohol use.
Ultimately, while the existence of risk factors do not guarantee the development of an alcohol use disorder, if one does develop, these risk factors can and should be addressed during treatment for the substance abuse issue. That is, if you are struggling with depression or anxiety as well as a drinking problem, then treatment should offer you:
No matter how things stand currently or how you got to where you are, you always have the option to make positive choices going forward. Whether you are living with an alcohol use disorder or you’d just like to get off the couch more often and move more, you can start now to make changes that will positively impact the rest of your life as well as the quality of your life.