You indulge in a few drinks on a night out, wake up in the morning and wonder whether you should exercise or not. Does it sound familiar? Exercise is important for our health and wellbeing, but we need to work out regularly. So, what happens when you drink alcohol and remember you’re supposed to exercise later or the next morning? Is it a good or bad idea? Find out in this post.

How Alcohol Affects the Body?

Let’s talk about the effects of alcohol on the body i.e. what, exactly, happens when you drink. When you drink alcohol, you don’t digest it. Instead, alcohol passes quickly into the bloodstream and travels throughout the body. The bloodstream delivers alcohol to your brain first and then to the kidneys, lungs, and liver. It may take about an hour for the liver to break down one unit of alcohol. Various factors are involved in the rate at which the liver breaks down alcohol such as your:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Metabolic rate
  • Food consumption
  • Medications you’re taking 
  • Alcohol intake (quantity and the type of alcoholic beverage)

A small amount of alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the stomach, about 20%, while the remainder enters the bloodstream through the small intestine (1). Alcohol induces a wide range of effects in the body and puts a strain on the cardiovascular system. With constant drinking, you may have high blood pressure, for example. Heavy and chronic alcohol use can lead to heart failure.

Every part of the body feels the consequences of alcohol, including the brain. Effects of alcohol on the brain include mood changes, impaired ability to think, problems coordinating movement, difficulty remembering things, among other things.

Is It Okay to Exercise After Drinking Alcohol?

Exercising after drinking alcohol may not be a good idea due to several reasons. The most obvious problem here is the lack of coordination, balance, and impaired judgment all of which occur with alcohol intake. Below, we are going to discuss the downsides of exercising after drinking alcohol. 

Impaired Athletic Performance 

To get the most out of the workouts, your athletic performance should be at the optimal level. Various factors can affect athletic performance such as stress, sleep deprivation, unhealthy diet, and alcohol is one of them. Evidence shows alcohol has metabolic, cardiovascular, thermoregulatory, and neuromuscular actions that may affect exercise performance. While strength is minimally affected, performance impairments depend on the amount of alcohol you drank, your habituation to alcohol intake, exercise duration, environmental conditions, and other factors. High alcohol doses impair the function of the central nervous system (CNS). As a result, you may experience decrements in motor skills and cognitive function along with behavioral changes which could exhibit adverse effects on athletic performance. The effects of intoxication may last for hours (2). 

Basically, when you drink alcohol the movement and coordination are affected. This leads to sluggish performance in the gym. For this reason, exercise after alcohol drinking may not be a good idea. 

Lack of Blood Glucose for Exercise Performance

When you exercise, the body needs extra energy from blood glucose (blood sugar). When you’re running or performing exercises, the liver and muscles release glucose. The role of glucose is to boost energy levels; it’s like a fuel you need to endure your workouts. However, evidence shows the acute alcohol intoxication inhibits the exercise-induced rise in serum glucose levels and causes a mild reduction in serum glucose during recovery from aerobic exercise. 

Further acute alcohol intoxication is implicated in attenuating post-exercise elevations in serum fatty acid levels. This effect of alcohol points to serious ramifications for both exercise and recovery. After all, glucose availability has a crucial role in endurance performance. Readily available stores of energy are needed to fuel the synthesis of protein during muscle recovery after a workout (3). In other words, alcohol may impair the energy source you need for optimal workout and much-needed recovery. 

Neurologic Effects of Alcohol Affect Exercise

Many people drink alcohol because they want to improve their mood. The reality is that alcohol is a depressant that works to decrease the excitability of the central nervous system and cerebral activity (4). You see, alcohol tends to induce a dose-dependent impairment of reaction time, balance, recognition, visual search, and memory and accuracy of fine motor skills. You need all these skills during exercise. Since alcohol slows down these functions, it also affects your workouts. Your movements may become sluggish, your reaction weakens, and you may even feel a little bit disoriented as if you're not sure what to do next. 

Several mechanisms are involved in the neurological effect of alcohol. These include:

  • Previously mentioned impact on glucose metabolism which may lead to alcohol intoxication symptoms 
  • Accumulation of acetaldehyde (a byproduct of alcohol metabolism)
  • Toxic effect of a group of substances called congeners often produced during the fermentation of alcohol may also contribute to reduced activity of CNS

Although more studies on this subject are necessary, it’s evident that alcohol depresses your CNS which harms your movements, coordination, and other skills required to perform exercises.

Injury Risk

In 2019, exercise with or without exercise equipment accounts for approximately 468,000 injuries, the most of any category of sports and recreation (5). Sometimes injuries are inevitable in people who have an active lifestyle. Factors that increase the risk of injuries (6) include:

  • Low fitness levels 
  • Poor technique
  • Overdoing your workouts
  • Stretching incorrectly 
  • Poor posture 
  • Slippery, uneven, and unstable floor 
  • Lack of sufficient space
  • Sleep deprivation 
  • Equipment malfunction 

Indeed, factors that make you susceptible to injuries are numerous. Alcohol can also lead to these unfortunate events. Studies confirm that alcohol use is directly associated with the rate of injuries sustained, besides its potential to evoke detrimental effects on exercise capacity (7).

The elevated injury risk due to alcohol is not so shocking if we bear in mind its impact on CNS. Poor coordination and weak motor skills put you in danger of making mistakes that could lead to injuries. 

After every injury, you need to start the recovery process to allow the body to heal. This may affect your fitness goals. 

Dehydration 

Without proper hydration, you can’t perform at an optimal level (8). You see, as sweat evaporates from the skin, it removes heat from the body and you also lose body fluid. That’s why you need to drink more fluid during exercise – so you can replace the fluids you lose when sweating. As a result, you can decrease the risk of heat stress, maintain normal body function, and perform at an optimal level. 

Alcohol is the enemy of that optimal performance. What most people tend to overlook is that alcohol is a diuretic meaning it causes the body to remove fluids from the blood through the renal system (9). As a diuretic, alcohol increases your need to urinate. Combine frequent urination with workout sweat and you get possible dehydration.

What if I Decide to Exercise After A Night of Drinking?

Let’s say you drank on your night out and decide to exercise the next day. You’re probably wondering what can happen. You can expect the following scenarios (10):

  • Since alcohol has a negative impact on your performance you may not be able to perform at your best the next day. This has a lot to do with reduced CNS excitability, dehydration, and symptoms of a hangover such as a headache 
  • Muscles burn glucose for energy during exercise, as mentioned above, which leads to the production of lactic acid. Excessive levels of lactic acid may cause cramps and fatigue. When you drink alcohol and decide to work out, the liver is more “focused” on getting rid of toxins from alcohol. As a result, the liver clears out lactic acid at a slower rate. In a nutshell, besides lack of energy for the workout due to alcohol, you may also find yourself experiencing cramps 
  • Lack of motivation happens due to reduced CNS activity and hangover symptoms. When you spend the night drinking, the exercise routine becomes a chore, something you have to get over with so you don’t miss out. You’re not motivated to exercise and thereby it’s difficult to do your best.

What we can conclude based on the evidence presented in this post is that exercising after drinking is not such a good idea. You may want to wait for the effects of alcohol to wear off so you don’t work out while intoxicated. This will improve your performance and reduce injury risk. 

What if I Want to Exercise After Drinking?

Regular exercise is all about routine and a specific schedule. For some people, it may be difficult to skip a workout, despite drinking the night before. If you drink alcohol and want to exercise, you need to make sure you’ve recovered from the night before so that you don’t put your body through further stress. Keep in mind that even if you feel fine, you still need to make sure your body and mind are ready for the workout. These tips may help you out.

Don’t rush

You don’t have to exercise the first thing in the morning after a night of drinking. You need to wait as long as possible between drinks and exercise. Keep in mind that a standard unit of alcohol is cleared from the body in one to two hours. Use this fact to calculate how long it’s going to take to clear out drinks you had the night before. It’s useful to bear in mind that if you drink more than a standard unit of alcohol the system becomes saturated and the additional alcohol builds up in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized (11). 

Rushing to exercise after drinking alcohol paves the way to the adverse reactions we’ve mentioned above. Waiting for alcohol to clear out is the safest thing to do. 

Hydrate

Hydration is crucial for optimal athletic performance, attention, awareness, and heart rate recovery time, especially when it’s tailored to fluid and sodium loss (12). Since alcohol is a diuretic it leads to dehydration which only worsens when you sweat during exercise. To have a safe workout after a night of drinking you need to make sure you are well-hydrated, in addition to the point described above. 

Exercises should drink 17 to 20 ounces of fluid two to three hours before exercise and another eight ounces 20 to 30 minutes before starting their workouts. During the exercise, you should drink seven to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes. Drink eight ounces of water about 30 minutes after your workout (13).

Staying hydrated will keep you focused and will also prevent the consequences that would occur with dehydration. 

Eat something before you drink 

Drinking on an empty stomach can only amplify the effects of alcohol (due to a quick absorption rate) (14), and that’s the last thing you want if you plan to exercise the next day. For that reason, you need to make sure to eat a solid meal after you drink. The food slows down the absorption of alcohol. But, you still need to be careful. While you need to eat solid food, you should still avoid meals that are high in calories. Eating something heavy can slow you down even more. 

The importance of proper nutrition is immense. While you may not feel like eating when you’re hangover, you still need to eat something before your workouts to power up your performance. Opt for healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables. 

Slow down the intensity

You love to do moderate-to-high intensity exercises? While this type of training is beneficial for cardiovascular and metabolic health (15), it’s not the best idea if you’ve been drinking. Remember, alcohol decreases your coordination, motor skills, movements, and CNS activity. Your reaction time is slower and it may be difficult to complete high-intensity training at an optimal level. Plus, this is not just about the performance per se. You are also more susceptible to injuries. To avoid these unwanted events you may want to stick to a low-intensity workout. 

Why You Should Stop Drinking

Having a few drinks every now and then may seem harmless, but it’s not good for your health. Consequences of drinking alcohol include:

  • Weight gain
  • Slow healing after injury
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver cirrhosis 
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Poor quality of life 

Conclusion

Alcohol consumption is widely prevalent. While many believe having a few drinks isn’t going to cause much harm the reality is different. Alcohol has many consequences on our health and wellbeing. These consequences extend to exercise and athletic performance. Exercising after drinking is not a good idea. Alcohol slows down CNS excitability, coordination, motor skills, promotes dehydration, impairs energy levels during exercise, and increases the risk of injuries. You may want the alcohol effects to wear off before you engage in exercise. That way you will be able to get the most out of your workout and prevent injury. 

References:

(1) https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/what-happens-when-you-drink-alcohol

(2) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16822341/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257708/

(4) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/57042/

(5) https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-sports-injuries#

(6) https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/6-health-risks-to-avoid-at-the-gym#1

(7) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15730339/

(8) https://familydoctor.org/athletes-the-importance-of-good-hydration/

(9) https://www.healthline.com/health/does-alcohol-dehydrate-you

(10) https://www.indi.ie/sports-nutrition/518-the-truth-about-alcohol-and-exercise.html

(11) https://shop.ucsc.edu/alcohol-other-drugs/alcohol/your-body.html

(12) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5987390/

(13) https://health.usnews.com/wellness/articles/2018-07-09/how-much-you-really-need-to-drink-when-exercising

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC543875/#

(15) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23210120/

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