Exercising at even moderate levels may prevent some of the harmful effects of drinking – such as cancer and death, a first-of-its-kind study has found.
Researchers, led by University of Sydney, found that for alcohol drinkers, physical activity may decrease the risks of dying both from cancer and from “all-cause mortality” that is, deaths from any cause.
They drew on responses from eight health surveys carried out in the UK between 1994 and 2006 which looked at the impact of physical activity and alcohol consumption on health outcomes.
“Our research suggests that physical activity has substantial health benefits even in the presence of potentially unhealthy behaviours such as drinking alcohol,” said Associate Professor Emmanuel Stamatakis, from the University of Sydney.
“Among physically inactive people, we saw that the risk for cancer and all-cause mortality was higher even at relatively low levels of drinking,” Stamatakis said.
“We also noticed a dose-response relationship between drinking alcohol and cancer deaths, that is the risk of cancer deaths increased as alcohol consumption increased. But this was not the case among physically active people,” he said.
Compared with never having been a drinker, drinking even within recommended levels was associated with a 36 per cent greater risk of death from cancer as well as a 13 per cent greater risk of death from any cause.
However, this risk was substantially lessened or offset among those who were physically active at the basic recommended level (equivalent to at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity activity such as brisk walking) or at the upper recommended level (equivalent to at least 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week).
In the physically active groups, only harmful levels of drinking were associated with increased risk of cancer death and death from any cause.
“We cannot suggest that doing some exercise is a licence to drink more alcohol, as alcohol abuse causes significant health and societal damage,” said Stamatakis.
“But given that so many people do drink alcohol, our study gives yet another compelling reason to encourage and empower people to be physically active and ask policy makers to invest in physical activity-friendly environments,” he said.
The surveys included questions about alcohol intake and physical activity levels among those aged 40 years and over.
The research was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.