Alcohol consumption is a topic that is not often discussed with respect to exercise performance. Typically, people joke about alcohol consumption, in general; and yet, alcohol abuse is a very serious subject. In addition, it has been well established that alcohol negatively affects health and exercise performance. Alcohol has been shown to result in damaging effects to the heart, metabolism and body temperature regulation.
In addition, many athletes consume greater amounts of alcohol compared to the overall population, and may binge drink more than the overall population. The effect of alcohol on exercise performance is complex and depends on things like when a person consumes alcohol after exercising, how much time they had to recover between workouts, if they were injured, and the amount of alcohol consumed. Binge drinking is related to greater negative effects on exercise performance and recovery compared to a person who drinks a moderate amount of alcohol. In general, alcohol use can lead to calcium loss in the body, which can lead to bone loss over time.
Alcohol consumption can also lead to decreased testosterone production in men, and decreased muscle growth in women and men. It can lead to increased estrogen production, blood pressure and fat storage. Many of these effects might not be seen immediately, but can be observed over time, especially in those who binge drink.
Despite the many negative effects of alcohol on exercise performance, some researchers have found that aerobic fitness was better in people who moderately consumed alcohol compared to those who did not consume alcohol, and compared to those who consumed a lot of alcohol. In addition, others have reported that cardiorespiratory fitness was no different between a group of people, about 25 years of age, when they consumed alcohol, compared to when they abstained from alcohol.
Health professionals working with recreational or elite athletes need to educate their clients to ensure that they understand the negative effects of alcohol on exercise performance. More importantly, they need to educate them on the long-term physiological effects of alcohol intake, especially high intakes of alcohol and/or binge drinking. Health professionals, and athletes themselves, need to monitor their alcohol intake.
If athletes do consume alcohol, Barnes states that approximately 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight will be the least detrimental to exercise performance and recovery.
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Stella Lucia Volpe, Ph.D., R.D.N., ACSM-CEP, FACSM, is professor and head of the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Her degrees are in both Nutrition and Exercise Physiology; she also is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist® and a registered dietitian. Dr. Volpe's research focuses on obesity and diabetes prevention using traditional interventions, mineral supplementation, altering the environment to result in greater physical activity and healthy eating; as well as in sport nutrition. Dr. Volpe is chair of the ACSM American Fitness Index, and is on the Board of Trustees for the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences. Dr. Volpe is an associate editor of ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal®, the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, and Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. She also is editor-in-chief for Current Nutrition Reports.