Completing the last parched, sweaty mile of a half marathon is a great accomplishment and cause for celebration. On the final leg of the 13.1-mile journey, I’m often offered a celebratory beer, with people cheering and holding signs, encouraging runners to get off before they cross the finish line.
Believe me, I want to party after a long race like that, but I literally couldn’t drink a beer after two hours of racing.
More importantly, why is American culture so obsessed with the overlap between alcohol and exercise? And could it be harmful? I think so. And, I think it’s time to reconsider the value we place on these two intertwined entities.
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Last month, the New York Times published an alarming opinion column on the drastic increase in alcohol consumption among women that has occurred during the pandemic. It was however noted that this alcohol abuse was preceded by confinement – from 2001 to 2002 and from 2012 to 2013 there were almost 60% increase in high-risk alcohol consumption among women and an almost 85% increase in alcohol use disorders. These numbers are extraordinary and should not be ignored. Such an increase in alcohol consumption has implications for many aspects of life, from parenthood to health care to the economy.
To make matters worse, marketing teams jumped at the chance to present alcohol as a reward or a relaxation tool, especially for women. Discover the trend #WineMom popular tags or accounts like @mommywinetime. You want to buy a shirt that says, “Life is what happens between coffee and wine”? No problem.
Marketing ploys that normalize the use of alcohol to deal with problems are also spreading (pun intended) in the exercise world.
Running with alcohol
If you do a quick Internet search on exercise and alcohol, you’ll find dozens of T-shirts emblazoned with “run, stand up, repeat,” “go run for wine” or “dumbbells and beer.” Check Instagram hashtags like #willrunforbeer or #wineworkout and you’ll see tons of photos of smiling, sweaty sportsmen drinking glasses of a cold booze while pumping iron or doing tricks.
Looking back, scientists have known for at least 20 years that people who exercise also tend to drink more regularly:
►A 2001 study in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Studies found that moderate drinkers were about twice as likely to exercise as their non-drinking peers.
►In 2015, a study found that the days when people exercised the mostthey also tended to drink the most afterwards.
►In a more recent study of nearly 40,000 American adults, physically fit women and men were almost twice as likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers.
For some time it seems that exercise and alcohol go hand in hand.
Higher consumption rates
Finally, there is the social aspect. And hey, I get it. It can be great fun celebrating with cycling buddies over margaritas after a race or with teammates after a volleyball win.
However, the United States takes both alcohol consumption and exercise very far. Americans are known to have a lot higher consumption rates compared to other countries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 6 American adults frenzy drinks, 25% doing so at least once a week.
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Indeed, since 1999, the the number of alcohol-related deaths in America has doubledmaking alcohol one of the main drivers of reduced life expectancy.
Toxic training culture
On the exercise side, we know america has become fascinated with extreme fitness, and fitness culture in general. In the 1950s, my dad used to say that no one thought about “working out” or going to the 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 industry estimated at $97 billion. Every day more and more elite gyms arise, pushing endless boot camp-style classes and high-intensity interval training that promise to push our bodies to their extreme limits.
Yeah. So we know that America has both an alcohol problem and an exercise problem, and now there’s a massive overlap between them – a toxic culture that continues to grow.
I believe it is time we seriously looked at this situation. In a society that values both alcohol consumption (to excess) and exercise (also to excess) so intensely, is it safe that we have now combined them? This means increasing the damage done to our body by excess alcohol, the damage done to our body by extreme fitness and exhausting competitiveness. How long do we want to keep paying $40 for 100 degree hot yoga, focus on getting that idyllic “fit” body, and running errands where we have to drink a beer every mile?
Maybe some people want to go there. But I ask that we at least reconsider whether this is going in a safe direction.
I hope that at some point we can approach both alcohol consumption and exercise as something moderate, something enjoyable, something that adds a little fulfillment to our lives. Not something I have to wear on my shirt, proclaiming I’ll only run if there’s rosé involved.
Annika Olson, associate director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, is a Public Voices member of the OpEd project. Follow her on Twitter: @annika_olson7