by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP

I was a young bike tech and mountain bike racer working in my local bike shop the day cycling legend Gary Fisher dropped in. While he was there he shared a story that helped clarify a question I had about the sport: Why is there such a strong link between mountain biking and beer? Every team I had raced for up to that point had a beer sponsor. The regional race series’ major sponsor was a beer company, and free beer was a regular feature of post-race celebrations. This constant exposure raised a simple question, do athletes drink more?

Whose Data Is It?

Alcohol consumption tends to be a very personal and loaded topic of discussion, but let’s separate the emotional connotations and take a look at the data. First, it’s important to know where the data comes from. For this discussion, the direct data is pulled from a research article published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a major journal in sports medicine and exercise physiology. There are other terms and items below that are found in many sources and locations and are not exclusive to the research article used for this piece. A large range of choices is often made based on an individual’s background and knowledge, so our greatest aim is to provide unbiased information to help with making more informed decisions about these behavioral selections. 

Give It To Me Straight, Data

It’s probably not surprising that according to the data, the higher an athlete’s physical fitness the more they drank each week. For these high-fitness-level individuals, men were 1.63 and women were 2.14 times more likely to be moderate or heavy drinkers compared to low-fitness-level individuals. Moderate fitness levels also tended to drink more when compared to low fitness levels. On a positive note, higher fitness levels also showed a lower CAGE score, which suggests a lower rate of alcohol dependence.

What The Heck Is A CAGE Score?

CAGE is an acronym for a quick and easy test to assess an individual’s risk of alcohol dependence. The test questions are:

  1. Have you ever felt the need to cut down on drinking?

  2. Have you ever felt annoyed by criticism about your drinking?

  3. Have you ever felt guilty about drinking?

  4. Have you ever drunk first thing in the morning (eye-opener)?

These questions give the test its name (Cut down, Annoyed, Guilty, Eye-opener = CAGE) and the results of the test are easy to interpret. Answering yes to two or more of the questions marks behavior suggestive of alcohol dependence. This test doesn’t provide a clinical diagnosis, of course, but can serve as an indicator of a potential issue to discuss with your doctor. 

Defining “Heavy”...

In this research the levels of drinking were based on servings of alcohol (12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz hard liquor) per week:

  • Light - 3 servings or less 

  • Moderate - more than 3-7 servings for women and more than 3-14 servings for men

  • Heavy - more than 7 servings per week for women and more than 14 for men

Another way to think about this is to consider servings per day. For men, regularly having more than two servings of alcohol per day would qualify as heavy drinking. 

What Does This Mean For Me?

There are important considerations when it comes to alcohol consumption habits on both a larger cultural and personal level. It’s always a good idea for individuals to take stock of the various aspects of health (ex. physical, social, mental, spiritual, etc.). Improvement in these areas positively impacts overall wellness. Current research indicates that alcohol consumption has a range of acute and chronic impacts on our health. Short-term impacts can go beyond a change in mental state or motor skills impairment to things like affecting sleep quality and increasing the risk of unintentional injury. Long-term impacts can include elevated risk for cardiac disease, cancers, and other serious illnesses. Don’t forget that these links and the severity of impact increase with rising consumption levels. This can be a good check-in to assess our individual habits and evaluate whether it’s beneficial to make adjustments to these habits. Making minor adjustments like switching out one alcoholic beverage per night with a non-alcoholic option can have a meaningful impact on long-term health and disease risk. 

This research suggests there may also be larger-scale benefits to considering the culture around sports and physical fitness. While usually not the only factor, better health and improved fitness are still a major factor for many individuals’ participation in regular exercise. Unfortunately, increased alcohol consumption is counter to this overall goal. Given this inverse relationship, it raises many questions like what are the factors causing increased alcohol consumption as individuals get fitter? How does this impact their reasons for participating in exercise? Is there a feedback loop between heavy drinking and increased exercise, such as a desire to 'work off' the extra Calories gained from drinking? At the very least this suggests we should begin to examine why this counterproductive trend exists within a fitness population, and how it may impact those just starting their fitness journey. 

Knowledge Is Power

The goal of this, or any other article on the Coeus site, is to provide access to current knowledge on a variety of topics. These resources (like the CAGE test) are made available as an easy option for evaluating personal habits. Our objective is to provide the resources necessary for making well-informed choices to support the health and fitness goals you set for yourself. 

Potential Limitations

This study included predominately white, highly educated, self-reported ‘healthy’ participants. The stated results will not apply to all populations due to a range of factors including cultural and health differences. It is also notable that this is not the first research reporting similar findings on the subject. Several additional published studies have noted similar relationships between alcohol consumption and fitness levels. It’s also important to understand the limitations of any study so findings aren’t inaccurately applied to a certain group. 

To learn more about this study, you can access it in its entirety for free here.

To learn more about the concepts covered in this article while earning NICA CEUs, check out our recommended courses below!

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SHUVAL, KEREM1,2; LEONARD, DAVID1; CHARTIER, KAREN G.3; BARLOW, CAROLYN E.1; FENNIS, BOB M.4; KATZ, DAVID L.5; ABEL, KATELYN1; FARRELL, STEPHEN W.1; PAVLOVIC, ANDJELKA1; DEFINA, LAURA F.1. Fit and Tipsy? The Interrelationship between Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Alcohol Consumption and Dependence. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 54(1):p 113-119, January 2022. | DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002777