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Here's What Happens When You Exercise After Drinking

Do you gotta skip that happy hour or nah?

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Ever been about to work out when you get a text from a friend asking you to meet them for happy hour? Brunch? Taco Tequila Tuesday?

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Yup, we've all been there. And you've probably wondered: can I maybe still work out after throwing back a few drinks?

To get to the bottom of this, we spoke with Aaron White, Ph.D, senior scientific advisor to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), and Thomas Allison, Ph.D, Director of the Integrated Stress Testing Center at the Minnesota Sports Cardiology Clinic.

OK, here's what you need to know:

First, here's what happens to your body when you drink alcohol:

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"When you drink, the alcohol goes to your stomach and then is absorbed in the small intestine," White tells BuzzFeed Health. "Alcohol is a small molecule that goes wherever the water goes in your body, which is everywhere, and that includes your brain."

How quickly you digest the alcohol is going to depend on what else is in your stomach — so if you haven't had anything to eat recently and your stomach is empty the alcohol can be absorbed within just half an hour.

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Just one adult beverage can affect the way your brain works.

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White says it can take only one drink, depending on genetics and tolerance, for your balance, decision making, and reaction time to be affected.

That's because alcohol targets four major parts of the brain: the reward center — which controls feelings of euphoria, making you feel good; the cerebellum — which controls motor coordination: balance, movement, and reaction time; the frontal lobe — which controls behavior, decision making, and impulse control; and the amygdala — which is what makes you feel anxious or afraid when you're in danger.

So, for instance, you may not be as wary of your limits when lifting heavy weight, which could lead to injury. Or, because your motor coordination is off, you could be playing a sport and accidentally hurt yourself or a teammate because your balance is off.

For most people, it'll take a few drinks to really feel the effects while exercising.

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Allison says that studies have shown it will take a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of around .08 for you to experience loss of muscle strength and endurance or feel lightheaded and dizzy while exercising. That can be around two to three drinks for a 140-pound person and four to five for a 160-pound person.

But, he points out, all those studies were done in a lab. In a real-world setting in which we're moving around outside and in a gym (with much more stimuli) it may take only a drink or two for someone to feel those effects. For instance, you'll probably feel that alcohol a lot more when you're running around outside in the sun than you would doing the same in an air-conditioned gym.

So clearly anything that requires concentration, balance, or technical ability is probably a don't.

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If you’re doing something simple at a moderate intensity, like bicep curls, going for a jog, or riding a stationary bike, White says you probably won't notice a difference. But if you've signed up for a CrossFit class, it's your heavy lifting day, or you're doing anything that requires you to get close to giving your maximum effort, you'll definitely feel the consequences of the alcohol.

So if you've had a few drinks, definitely don't try exercises or activities that involve lots of concentration, balance, or judgement calls, such as trail biking/running, yoga, technical or heavy lifts, and especially stay away from the StairMaster.

Not to mention your energy levels and endurance will take a pretty big hit.

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Allison says that when you're working out your heart rate picks up, the blood vessels in your muscles dilate, and your heart pumps blood to your muscles to get them oxygen and glucose to burn for energy. But when you drink alcohol, the blood vessels in your skin dilate and steal blood from your muscles, the alcohol competes with glucose as a fuel, and your body's ability to work efficiently and use glucose to get you energy throughout your workout is impaired.

He says most people won't be able to notice much after one drink, but that after two drinks (depending on your tolerance) there will be mild but noticeable impairment. You'll notice those negative effects faster if you’re trying to perform at maximum exertion — like if you're trying to win a race and going all out — but when you’re running on the treadmill at an easier pace you might not.

You might also get dehydrated more easily/have to pee every five minutes.

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Alcohol is a diuretic — a substance that promotes the production of urine. So on top of how much you already sweat during a workout, the alcohol will tell your kidneys to excrete more fluid, which will make you even more dehydrated. This can increase your risk of heat stroke and dehydration.

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Drinking can also affect the way you build muscle and recover after exercise.

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"Alcohol impairs protein synthesis and decreases growth hormone and testosterone, which slows down your muscle growth and recovery," Allison says. "So drinking before weightlifting or after, even if you can do the reps and lift the weight during your workout, will affect your body's ability to repair the muscles and get stronger."

And you probably shouldn't use alcohol to relax before a big game or race.

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Even if a quick pre-race (or pre-Zumba) cocktail sounds like a good idea for your stress levels, White says it's hard to see the benefit. While the temporary decrease in stress may be nice, it will quickly be offset by alcohol's effects on the brain.

You may feel good at first, but half an hour later you'll potentially be irritable and want to urinate, grab a snack, and go to sleep, which isn't ideal.

OK so you went to happy hour but you really want to work out. HALP.

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How fast alcohol gets to the small intestine is going to be partially determined by what else is in your stomach, White says. So to slow down the absorption of alcohol make sure you're snacking on something while you're at drinks (something light so it supports your workout).

Allison also recommends giving your body some time to metabolize the alcohol before exercising — one hour if you've had one drink, and two to two-and-a-half hours if you've had two drinks. If you've had more than two drinks, eh, maybe just skip it.

Bottom line: Exercising after a drink isn't ideal. But if you do it, keep things simple and low intensity

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"If you’re stopping at happy hour before you go to the gym, you’re definitely not helping yourself," Allison says. "But if you're just having one to two drinks, and you’re not eating a ton, then it’s not going to hurt."

He says it's important to remember that every person is going to have a different threshold depending on their genetics and alcohol tolerance, but that the key is to make sure you're doing a manageable exercise that won't put yourself or the people around you in danger.

And when in doubt, always skip the workout and get after it another day.

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