It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking about health in terms of different categories with one net gain or loss. If you have a good diet and work out, you deserve to indulge in some less-than-healthy vices, right?
It’s a fair argument, but health isn’t siloed into separate categories – it’s a holistic game and things like alcohol and tobacco use can throw off your fitness in some major ways.
HTBM on Alcohol and Tobacco
To be clear, we’re not T-totalers here at HTBM. We understand that most people can and do manage alcohol responsibly and the goal of this article isn’t to scare anybody away from that. The goal of this article is to explain that alcohol and tobacco use can and will negatively impact your workout if you let them.
Similarly, we’re here to talk about how alcohol and tobacco affect your workout, not how they affect your life. As a result, we’re focusing on how these substances affect your health and performance on the short term. We’re not going to tell you scary stories about liver failure and lung cancer that come from years of abuse.
That having been said, we promote gaining muscle as part of a long and vigorous life and we’re not going to brush the dangers of these substances under the rug. If you want to work out in a healthy and sustainable way and you want to learn how alcohol and tobacco play into that system, keep reading. If you want to look tough, close your browser and go get a tattoo.
Alcohol and Your Workout
Unlike nicotine, which we’ll get to next, alcohol is kind of a double-edged sword. People usually think about how it impacts the mind, but it does also impact the body.
Alcohol, Mental Health, and Your Workout
We can start our list on alcohol with what you may think of first: alcohol, particularly if you drink too much too often, can impact your mood. Alcohol can make you feel better in the moment, but it does this by highjacking your body’s natural reward centers, which can make it harder for those reward centers to function correctly.
If you drink because you’re unhappy, stop. Or, at least cut back. Because that system will feed itself. When depression leads to alcohol use, alcohol use feeds depression. Look for those pick-me-ups from other places like working out.
That’s right, working out uses your body’s reward system in the way that it’s supposed to work, giving you natural and healthy mood boosts. This can be a substitute for drinking, but on the flip side it also means that too much drinking can make it difficult for you to find the motivation to work out.
Alcohol and Your Physical Health
There are a couple of things going against alcohol when it comes to your physical health too. While we (tend to) basically just think of alcohol as a drug in a vacuum, it does come with some nutritional baggage.
For one thing, as a rule, alcohol is made from either fruits or grains – both things that you should recognize as big carbohydrate contributors which most bodybuilding diets would have you avoid. It’s true that yeast does convert sugars into alcohol during the fermentation process, so your wine may have fewer carbs than, say, grape juice, but the yeast never eats all the sugar.
Even if it did, alcohol itself is an energy yielding nutrient just like fats or carbohydrates. In fact, alcohol yields 7 calories per gram – that’s almost twice the caloric density of carbohydrates or fats. And, depending on what you drink, there may be added sweeteners at play.
Alcohol also dissolves fat, which is a component of every cell in your body but which is particularly important to your GI tract. So, frequent or heavy alcohol use can damage your ability to take in certain nutrients. Even on the short term, alcohol consumption can prevent your body from getting the most out of your diet including by flushing water and other nutrients out early.
“But there are good things about alcohol too…” yes, fine, there are. Wine does have natural antioxidants, and beer does have prebiotics that can help your digestion. However, you can get those same benefits from fruits and fermented foods like pickles without the negatives that come from alcohol.
“Everything in Moderation”
So, how much is too much? It’s hard to say. How alcohol affects you, both mentally and physically, varies based on your metabolism, your body size, and other factors. However, the CDC’s alcohol recommendations of two drinks or fewer per day for men and one drink or fewer per day for women are a good place to start.
Keep in mind that because of the different strengths of different kinds of alcohol, different methods of production, and different drink sizes across producers and distributors, it can be virtually impossible to know exactly how much you’re actually drinking. This problem compounds the more you drink.
Keep in mind this old adage about alcohol: If you think you have a problem, you probably do. If you don’t have a problem cutting back, think about cutting back. If you do have a problem cutting back, think about talking to your doctor about resources to help you quit before it affects more than your number of gym days in a month.
Nicotine and Your Workout
Between alcohol and tobacco, tobacco is the more straight-forward conversation. There are some mental effects from smoking (mainly increased focus and perceived energy), but for the most part it’s a strictly physical activity.
Physical Effects of Nicotine
Nicotine is a different discussion, largely because there are so many “delivery methods.” No matter how you take nicotine (smoking, vaping, chewing, etc.), some of the short-term results are the same and can vary based on how much you take. Those pertinent to the discussion in this article are:
- Increase in heart rate
- Nausea, headaches, and dizziness
- Stomach cramps and decreased appetite
- Increased breathing rate
The increase in heart and breathing rates are actually a draw to some fitness minded people, as increasing these biological functions does speed up metabolism.
However, if you manage your diet and activity levels responsibly, you want your energy to go toward your activity rather than passively burning it off by manipulating what’s called your “basal metabolic rate.” This metric is a measure of how many calories your body burns while you are at rest just by breathing and moving blood.
This exchange is particularly short-sighted when you consider the negative impact that nicotine use has on your body and ability to exercise, particularly if you smoke or vape.
Nicotine, Your Lungs, and Physical Ability
When you take nicotine through smoking or vaping, the carrier damages your lungs. You don’t need us to tell you that you have to breathe to stay alive but, bear with us for a moment.
Oxygen is part of how your body generates energy, particularly during vigorous exercise over extended periods. Part of your body’s ability to generate and use energy is tied to how effectively it can move oxygen.
How much oxygen you can take in and how quickly is tied to a metric called “VO2 Max.” An article diving into VO2 Max and how it affects your workout is on the docket at HTBM, but for now just understand that smoking decreases your lungs’ ability to oxygenate your blood and your heart’s ability to move that blood to your muscles. In other words, it nerfs your workout.
There Is No “Best” Way to Use Nicotine
There are a lot of rumors going around about vaping being healthier than smoking. Because vaping is such a recent trend, it can be difficult to sort out what’s true. However, it’s probably a tie at best in terms of which activity is worse for your lungs.
It’s true that smoking brings tar and particles into your lungs. These can get caught in your lungs, and the tar can reduce the elasticity that allows you to do things like breathe. It’s also true that these ingredients don’t come with vaping.
However, there is an increasing body of evidence that vaping comes with its own health problems. The liquid used in vaping doesn’t have the particles that come with smoke, but it can collect in the lungs leading to problems like pneumonia, which can also limit the effectiveness of your lungs.
Similarly, some of the same non-nicotine chemicals found in tobacco smoke are still present in vape products. Finally, the sheer heat of vaping is a concern just like it is for smokers.
As a quick side note, chewing tobacco doesn’t damage the lungs. However, it can be damaging to your gastrointestinal tract, interfering with how your body uses nutrients taken in through your diet. It also comes with some of the same digestive and abdominal problems that come with smoking, even with light and infrequent use.
There Is No “Healthy” Amount of Nicotine Use
It’s true that alcohol, like nicotine, impacts your body differently based on your size and how much or how often you use it. However, while medical experts tend to agree that there is a safe volume and frequency for alcohol consumption, they also tend to agree that there is no safe volume or frequency of use for nicotine products.
If you have a cigar at a bachelor party or when a friend has a baby, that’s one thing. But if you regularly use nicotine at all you should quit. If you have trouble quitting, there are over-the-counter solutions like nicotine patches and gums that can help you taper off. If these solutions don’t work, talk to your doctor.
Smoking, Drinking, and Muscles in the Movies
If this article has been hard for you to swallow, don’t be too hard on yourself, particularly if you’re a man. Strength and muscles, smoking, and drinking, are all presented as masculine things in our culture, despite their being biologically at odds.
Whether it’s Mel Gibson perpetually reaching for cigarettes in Lethal Weapon or Jensen Ackles playing the chiseled alcoholic in Supernatural, despite neither of them working out on camera (and both of them loving their junk food), being big and tough is definitely romanticised in media more than working for it. Every now and again, we do get a faithful representation.
Keanu Reeves constantly stops to catch his breath as the action hero in Constantine, and is actually diagnosed with cancer and eventually quits smoking over the course of the film. Even Fightclub, which was written as a caricature of toxic masculinity, sees Edward Norton and Brad Pitt constantly working out as they drink and smoke their way through the script.
If you poll some of your acquaintances and roll models at the gym, you’ll probably find that they never smoke and if they drink it is in moderation.
Is it Time to Quit or Cut Back?
The takeaway for the day is that you can’t play your health against itself. Your good diet and exercise won’t make up for your alcohol and tobacco use. It’s possible to engage in these things in moderation, but if you drink and smoke regularly, they will (or already do) compromise your gains.
This is particularly true as you age. Your metabolism starts to slow and your heart and lungs get tired. If you’re just here to bulk muscle, that might not seem important to you, but if your workout routine is really about health, you’ll understand that you’re cheating yourself by indulging in alcohol and tobacco just like you cheat yourself with junkfood or ignoring your gym schedule.
We’re happy to have presented you with facts on how alcohol and tobacco impact your workout, but didn’t feel like including tips on quitting or reducing use was within our scope here at HTBM. Still, if you have experience with quitting or cutting back on using these or other substances, please do leave a comment on how you managed it and how it paid off for you.