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After you hit the gym, is a stop at the bar your next move? If so, you're not alone. Research sheds some light on the correlation between drinking and working out.

If you’re from Milwaukee, drinking is practically part of your DNA, and swilling beer is virtually a civic duty. What else would you expect in a city that’s been brewing beer for about 180 years and used to average one tavern for every 40 residents?

In some twisted logic that only makes sense in Brew City, exercising and consuming alcohol are partners in crime. Turns out that’s not such a bad thing: A post-workout beer can actually be a boon for the athletically inclined.

SYNERGISTIC CONNECTION

Maybe there’s a reason why marathon runners and professional athletes tend to celebrate victories with copious amounts of beer (whether poured over their heads or down their gullets).

Research from two studies (from 2011 and 2015) draws a compelling link between beer consumption and exercise, even suggesting a symbiotic relationship. The latter study found that participants drank more on days when they upped their physical activity. The earlier one noted that the correlation between moderate consumption of alcohol and exercise was stronger in men.

Scientists have long known that people who exercise often also tend to drink regularly. A 2001 study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that moderate drinkers were nearly two times as likely to work out as their nondrinking counterparts.

While this research may help justify your post-gym cocktail cravings, it also begs the question: Why are the two connected in the first place? “It could be physiologically based,” says Ann Swartz, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee prof who specializes in exercise physiology. “These behaviors both provide rewarding stimuli to the brain and may lessen anxiety.”

Swartz also suggests specific motives that might help demystify the correlation, including the “work hard, play hard” theory. “When you exercise hard and perform well in your sport, you can then play hard – or consume alcohol,” she says. Then there’s the psychological component. Runner’s high – a euphoric feeling caused by any aerobic activity – is similar to the buzz brought on by moderate alcohol consumption. Those who thrive on one might thrive on the other.

FOAM FOR YOUR HEALTH?

Locals don’t need much more than ready access to a cold one to entice them to drink. The idea that imbibing could be beneficial to your health – stipulation: consumption within reason – is icing on the cake. Researchers from Penn State to the University of Alabama at Birmingham have been busy examining the connections. For instance, a 2016 study at Penn State concluded that moderate beer drinking led to the slowest decline in levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – that’s the “good” cholesterol – and therefore a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases. But before you order another pitcher, know that the outlook fades when the consumption increases.

“We know clearly that a certain amount of alcohol can cause tremendous health hazards, including heart failure, accidents, obesity, liver failure, psychosis, among other problems,” confirms Dr. Christopher Weber, an internist with Columbia-St. Mary’s.

But Weber agrees that moderate alcohol consumption can have health benefits, although he emphasizes that moderate means one serving per day for women and two servings per day for men. “You cannot save them up and drink all on the weekend or after a race,” he says, adding that the harm outweighs the benefits.

FINISH-LINE BREWSKI

But is a pint a healthy way to end a workout? While there’s no conclusive evidence that post-workout beers are beneficial, most experts agree one beer (or two, for males) won’t hurt you. “After a workout, it is probably not detrimental,” says Weber. “My suspicion is that drinking beer after a marathon or hard workout is much more of a social or psychologic event and not something physiologic.”

That said, the importance of psychological rewards should not be underestimated. So, if the promise of a drink gets you to the gym, then cheers. ◆


‘The Drive to Drink’ appears in Milwaukee Health, a special issue from Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the issue on newsstands beginning Monday, July 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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