In an analysis of data from eight British population-based surveys, the link between drinking alcohol and risk of death from all causes was weaker among people who met or exceeded minimum weekly physical activity recommendations, Kadija Perreault, PhD, from the University of Montreal in Quebec, Canada, and colleagues report in an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Specifically, the added risk for dying of cancer tied to drinking was nearly erased among regular exercisers.
The findings appear to support previous studies suggesting that drinking alcohol and physical activity are both linked to chronic disease but work in opposite ways, the authors write.
In a previous study, heavy drinking was shown to increase the risk of death by 31% to 54%. A recent review strongly linked alcohol to multiple types of cancer. High levels of physical activity, in contrast, have been linked to a significantly reduced risk for breast and colon cancer in multiple studies.
The current study is one of the first to examine whether an association exists between the health benefits of physical activity and the increased death risk associated with drinking alcohol.
Using data from the annual, nationally representative Health Survey for England and the Scottish Health Survey that included information about drinking and physical activity, scientists looked at 36,370 adults aged 40 and older.
Of them, 4,845 people drank more than recommended weekly alcohol limits -- 14 drinks for women and 21 for men. Among people who reported having had a drink during the previous week, the average amount was slightly more than six drinks. Across the study population, more than a quarter of the participants (27.5%) reported no physical activity, meaning they didn’t get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise weekly. Thirty-nine percent achieved the minimum amount and about 23% reported exercising more.
Occasional drinking appeared to help protect against deaths from all causes and heart disease deaths among adults who got the recommended amount of exercise, according to the researchers.
The study emphasizes the role exercise can play in health, even if people engage in unhealthy behaviors, the researchers write.