Bikes and booze

The reward awaiting a fat biker fit enough to pedal to Anchorage’s “Whiskey Island” on Friday night. Is it the “licensing effect?”/Craig Medred photo

If you’re a serious fan of fitness – as the winter-busy fat-bike and ski trails of Alaska’s largest city would indicate many in Anchorage are – there is a good possibility you have something in common with the homeless too often seen wandering there:

You drink too much.

This is a conclusion reached by researchers at The Cooper Institute after studying the data from nearly 39,000 healthy people ages 20 to 86 who underwent preventive testing at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas and enrolled in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study of physical fitness and health.

The world-famous clinic was founded in 1970 by now 90-year-old Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who is widely considered the father of “aerobics.”

The new study – aptly tagged as “Fit and Tipsy” – was intended to look specifically at the drinking behaviors of the fit given that previous “studies examining the nexus of physical activity and alcohol consumption have found that participation in sports and other physical activities are related to increased drinking in college athletes and nonathletes alike. These studies, however, used self-reported measures of physical activity, which are subject to overreporting because of social desirability.”

Physical fitness is a “positive health behavior,” the authors of the Cooper study wrote, and healthy behaviors usually cluster together. Alcohol, despite apparent connections to some kinds of cancers, is generally considered healthy if drinking remains light to moderate, the latter being defined as less than 14 drinks per week.

Alcohol consumption at and below that level has shown a positive relationship to lower risks of heart disease, the nation’s number one killer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When it comes to fitness and alcohol behaviors, however, what the researchers found was a move toward heavier drinking as fitness increased, although fitness improvements themselves did not appear to lead to heavy drinking.

“Highly fit women and men were approximately 2.1 and 1.6 times, respectively, more likely to be moderate/heavy versus light drinkers in comparison to low fit women and men,” they reported.

Still, the proportion of heavy drinkers in all fitness levels generally stayed the same with 4 to 5 percent of the women in the study and 12 to 14 percent of the men heavy on the booze no matter whether their treadmill tests ranked their fitness low, moderate or high.

Whiskey Island

The light drinkers, on the other hand, tended to fall away as fitness increased.

Locally, there are few fat-bikers of low fitness reported to be visiting the city’s fabled “Whiskey Island” hidden deep in a 4,000 acres tract of trail-filled, municipal wildland between the eastern edge of Anchorage and the half-million-acre Chugach State Park.

If the Cooper studied is to be believed, it might be because they become heavier drinkers on the way to building up the fitness to make the ride.

“In women, light drinking decreased whereas moderate drinking increased
according to increasing fitness categories,” the authors reported.

Nearly 70 percent of the women in the low-fitness category reported being light drinkers with the percentage falling to 56 percent in the moderate-fitness categories.  Only 26 percent of low-fitness women reported being moderate drinkers compared to 39 percent of the moderately fit and nearly 50 percent of the highly fit.

“In men, similar trends were observed; that is, light drinking decreased (45.4 percent,
37.9 percent, 36.2 percent), moderate drinking increased (41.8 percent, 48.4 percent,
51.5 percent), and heavy drinking was similar across ordered fitness
categories (12.8 percent, 13.8 percent, 12.2 percent), respectively,” the authors wrote.

They offered no firm reason for these changes but suggested the “relationship could be
explained by a psychological mechanism referred to as the ‘licensing effect,’ where achieving goals (such as running a 10-kilometer race) could provide a ‘license’ to indulge in an unhealthy behavior (such as drinking) as a rewarding mechanism. This psychological explanation, however, should be regarded as supposition, which warrants additional empirical examination in subsequent research, particularly because psychological variables were not available in the current data set.”

The study did contain some good news for men worried about their drinking habits.

Though it found indications of alcohol dependence among heavy drinkers in all fitness categories, it also found that “in men who are heavy drinkers, as fitness increased, the percentage of those with suggested alcohol dependence decreased.”

The same, unfortunately, was not true of women.

“This finding warrants further investigation…to determine the potential protective aspect” of fitness for male drinkers and why the relationship doesn’t appear to play out for women, particularly given that “previous research by Lisha et al., in a large sample of US adults, found that physical activity was positively related to alcohol consumption but not to severe forms of alcohol use disorders with no differences by sex.”

As with so much science, it’s complicated, but one thing is clear: The fitness part of this behavioral equation improves human health.

After 200,000 to 300,000 years of evolution as an animal constantly on the move, humans have yet to adapt to their current status as an animal that spends most of its time sitting. Thus it is a good idea to keep moving.

Study after study has found sitting too much is a sure way to shorten how long you live.

And despite ongoing debates about how much alcohol consumption is too much alcohol consumption, it appears pretty clear that a bike ride followed by a beer at the local brewhouse is sure to be better for you than sitting and reading this or some even less informative crap.







7 replies »

  1. It’s hard to stay sober in Alaska even if you didn’t stop at the liquor store. I am remember one time finding a bottle of Blackberry brandy on the winter trail going to Skwentna. Another time when arriving at the Mint Glacier hut there was a bottle of whiskey waiting for me on the table. Sobriety is underrated in our current society where all socialization seems to evolve around inebriation.

  2. Seems to me the so-called “licensing effect” would be better described as a vicious cycle (pun intended): you ride a lot so you feel you’ve earned the right to drink a lot; you drink a lot so you feel you need to ride a lot to make up for it (guilt, body image, etc.) and round and round it goes…Pretty common when I was in college.

    As a non-Anchorage resident it would be interesting to hear more about this Whiskey Island. A place in the Anchorage woods where guys on expensive bikes go to get drunk?

    • More “Cheers” like than drunk, Pete. It’s the old alcohol issue of the good side and the dark side. It’s a socializing stop. Two wheels tend to discourage drunk driving, especially two wheels on winter trails where the riding can be tricky.

      Personally I save my tipling for when I get home, but that study did make me think about that second or third beer after cycling in hot country. It isn’t hard to outrun or out pedal 14 drinks per week.

  3. Thanks for your research and article Craig. I have made a couple of comments the last two years about the obsession with alcohol some in the biking community have and thought it inappropriate that a FaceBook page dedicated to a healthy lifestyle focus on drinking alcohol. I’m not a teetotaler and enjoy an occasional IPA but some in our biking community are clearly obsessed with drinking. I hope they read your article. And I hope our moderators take note and limit the posts on drinking.

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