A game of two pints

June 21, 1996

In a week when English sports writers had to concede that beer drinking might not be fatal to performance, an exercise scientist has offered hope for more modest sportspeople who cannot disentangle drink and sport: exercise may be safer if you have downed a pint beforehand.

Researchers have found that drinking alcohol 45 minutes before taking exercise may substantially reduce the likelihood of having a heart attack while exercising.

Alcohol helps combat heart disease by raising the level of a certain type of lipid. Now it appears that it also thins the blood, and that the effect is exacerbated by exercise.

Mahmoud El-Sayed, a specialist in exercise biochemistry at Liverpool John Moores University, gave 50 volunteers two pints of beer each (half a gram of alcohol for every kilogram of body weight). After 45 minutes they did half an hour of exercise. Dr El-Sayed measured their fibrinogen levels, the main determinant of blood viscosity.

Fibrinogen levels dropped by 15 per cent. This means that when the heart was especially burdened because it was pumping viscous blood around the body at an increase rate due to exercise, the alcohol had thinned the blood, relieving pressure on the heart. And Dr El-Sayed did not think that alcohol would increase the rate of accidents because the amount required was too small.

He stressed that his experiments had been done in healthy people so the conclusion that alcohol could protect exercisers known to have heart disease cannot yet be drawn.

Dr El-Sayed's advice to the England football team remains: don't drink. "It is known that alcohol impairs exercise performance capacity but from the health point of view it might be wise to take a moderate amount of alcohol beforehand."

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