Finishing the last, parched sweaty mile of a half-marathon is a big accomplishment, and cause for celebration. At the last leg of the 13.1-mile journey, I’m often offered a celebratory beer, with folks cheering and holding signs, encouraging runners to down it before hitting the finish line.
Believe me, I’m all about celebrating after a long race like that – but I literally could not drink a beer after two hours of running.
More important, why is American culture so obsessed with the overlap between drinking and exercise? And could it be harmful? I think so. And, I think it’s time we reconsider the value we place on these two intertwined entities.
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Abuse of alcohol
Last month, The New York Times published an alarming opinion column on the drastic increase in drinking by women that occurred during the pandemic. It was noted, however, that this abuse of alcohol was preceded by the lockdown – from 2001 to 2002 and 2012 to 2013, there was a nearly 60% increase in women’s high-risk drinking and an almost 85% increase in alcohol use disorder. These numbers are extraordinary and should not be ignored. Such a rise in alcohol consumption impacts many facets of life – from parenting to health care to the economy.
To make matters worse, marketing teams have jumped at the chance to portray alcohol as a reward or a tool for relaxation, especially for women. Check out the trending #WineMom tags or popular accounts like @mommywinetime. Want to buy a shirt that says, “Life is what happens between coffee and wine”? No problem.
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The marketing ploys that normalize using alcohol to deal with problems spills over (pun intended) into the exercise world as well.
Running with booze
If you do a quick internet search on exercise and drinking, you’ll find dozens of T-shirts sporting “run, rose, repeat,” “will run for wine” or “barbells and beer.” Check Instagram hashtags like #willrunforbeer or #wineworkout and you will see tons of photos of smiling, sweaty exercisers downing glasses of a chilly alcoholic beverage while pumping iron or running laps.
Looking back, scientists have known for at least the past 20 years that people who exercise also tend to drink more regularly:
►A 2001 study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that moderate drinkers were about two times as likely to workout as their nondrinking peers.
►In 2015, one study found that on days people exercised the most, they also tended to drink the most afterward.
►In a more recent study that looked at almost 40,000 American adults, physically fit women and men were nearly twice as likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers.
For some time, it appears that exercise and alcohol have gone hand in hand.
Higher drinking rates
Lastly, there is the social aspect. And hey, I get it. It can be tons of fun to celebrate with cycling buddies over margaritas after a ride or with teammates after a volleyball win.
However, the United States takes both drinking and exercise really far. Americans are known to have much higher drinking rates compared with other countries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 U.S. adults binge drinks, with 25% doing so at least weekly.
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In fact, since 1999, the number of alcohol-related deaths in America has doubled, making alcohol one of the leading drivers of decreasing life expectancy.
Toxic workout culture
On the exercise side of things, we know that America has become fascinated with extreme fitness, and fitness culture in general. Back in the 1950s, my dad said that no one thought about “working out” or going to a gym. You played sports, ran with your friends and were active in other ways. Even in the 1980s, Jane Fonda painted exercise as something fun and could be done in colorful leggings.
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Now, however, the fitness industry has grown to an estimated $97 billion industry. Each day, more and more elite gyms crop up, pushing endless boot camp-style classes and high-intensity interval training that promise to push our bodies to their extreme limits.
Yikes. So we know that America has both an alcohol and an exercise problem, and now there is a massive overlap between them – a toxic culture that continues to grow.
I believe it is time we take a good, hard look at this situation. In a society that so intensely values both drinking (to excess) and exercise (also to excess) is it safe that we have now combined them? This means increasing damage to our body from excess alcohol, damage to our body from extreme fitness and competitiveness that is exhausting. How long do we want to continue paying $40 for 100-degree hot yoga, fixate on achieving an idyllic “fit” body and run races where we have to chug a beer each mile?
Maybe some people want to go for it. But I’m asking that we at least reconsider if this is headed in a safe direction.
I’m hoping at some point we can approach both drinking and exercise as something in moderation, something enjoyable, something that adds a bit of fulfillment to our lives. Not something that I have to wear on my shirt, proclaiming that I will only run if there is rosé involved.
Annika Olson, assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter: @annika_olson7