Editor’s Note: This article is aimed at adults of legal drinking age. Younger adults and minors should not consume alcohol.
Alcohol and athletic performance have never been words that go together in a positive context. Drinking in moderation in perfectly fine for most people of legal drinking age, and being fit doesn’t mean you have to swear off drinking for good or ruin all your progress. But if you really want to maintain your physical stamina and strength, you’ll want to limit your drinking to a couple drinks on the weekends at most. That’s because excessive drinking can have a serious negative impact on your fitness.
The Weight Gain
All types of foods can usually be broken down into three main macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates and fats. One gram of protein or carbohydrates has about 4 calories; one gram of fat has about 9. Alcohol is its own substance, and has approximately 7 calories per gram. That means even one shot of 80 proof vodka is about 100 calories alone, and that’s just the alcohol with no extra carbs or sugar. In short, alcohol is calorically expensive.
One night of three or four beers can put you at 450-600 extra calories in alcohol alone; not to mention once you start drinking and your inhibitions and impulse control weaken, you’re likely to snack on unhealthy foods too.
It’s not just the calories in alcohol that make it more likely for you to gain weight. Alcohol, unlike other macronutrients, cannot be stored in your body as fat. It has to be used immediately. So that means while your body is burning the alcohol calories for fuel (that’s how you get drunk!), all the other calories in your system, either before or after drinking, have to be stored as fat as your body has to prioritize getting the alcohol out of your system.
Alcohol also has the nasty habit of tricking your body into producing more insulin, which both stimulates fat storage and hunger, so your body stores calories as fat more readily AND your craving for potato chips spikes.
The Physiological Effects
Because your body prioritizes burning alcohol ahead of other carbs, it’s not properly absorbing the other nutrients you’ve consumed; your body is less able to synthesize protein for muscle repair and muscle building the way it normally would. All the stress at the gym will be worth nothing if your body isn’t able to repair or grow new muscle tissue. You not only feel the effects in less strength gains at the gym, but you also feel it when your body is unable to recover fast enough to return to the gym in a couple days.
Alcohol is also a dieuretic, which means it dehydrates you. Dehydration slows down your body’s ability to perform other activities, such as muscle repair, muscle oxygenation and glycogen replenishment. Dehydration is also the primary cause of hangovers—as in the reason you can’t make it to the gym the day after a night of serious drinking and throws off your whole routine. Dehydration causes muscle cramping, which could lead to injury if you try to work out.
Testosterone, the hormone that allows for muscle and strength development, decreases when you drink excessively. As your liver processes the alcohol, it releases a toxin that can destroy testosterone in your body, negatively impacting muscle repair and growth, as well as potentially throwing your hormones out of whack and leaving you with the laundry list of symptoms associated with low testosterone, such as depression, reduced sex drive, low energy, generalized weakness and even symptoms of mesothelioma. This is not to mention the dangers of cancer associated with drinking, so if these symptoms are present, it’s important to get advice from a professional. At the same time, alcohol increases the production of cortisol, a chemical that significantly reduces the levels of natural human growth hormones in your body and facilitates fat storage as well as muscle loss.
Fitness doesn’t require that you swear off alcohol completely; of course you’re probably going to have a drink every now and again with your friends or at a party—that is if you’re of age. But before you go bar hopping or get crazy at a party, consider the detrimental effects the excess alcohol could have on your fitness—your progress could be set back pretty significantly. Ask yourself if all your hard work is worth sacrificing before you go crazy with the liquor.