Hopping on a spin bike in a crowded studio with pounding techno music is probably the last thing you want to do after a night out drinking with the girls, but according to a new study, it might be worth dragging yourself out of bed.
Previous research has shown that drinking really can make you stupid and not just when it comes to drunk-dialing your ex. The more you drink, the more you damage your white matter, the part of your brain in charge of facilitating communications between the two hemispheres. But a new study from the University of Colorado, Boulder, (coincidentally also known as one of the top-five "party schools" in the nation) has good news: You can moderate the damage with exercise.
The study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, asked 60 people about their exercise habits and alcohol consumption and then scanned their brains. The researchers found that among the people who consumed the most drinks (up to 150 per month or about five per day), those who exercised the most maintained the health of their white matter, while those who skipped their workouts showed increasing brain damage.
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But before you go filling up your water bottle with coffee in anticipation of your college roommate's bachelorette party, you should know that the scientists do not say this is license to overindulge. Hollis Karoly, lead author and a doctoral researcher in the psychology and neuroscience department, explains, "Heavy drinking takes a toll on many organs in the body, not just the brain. And the study only looked at white matter—it's possible exercise does not ameliorate damage to other components of the brain, such as gray matter."
In addition, the researchers still aren't sure exactly what the connection is. People who exercise five to six times a week likely make other healthy choices such as eating a whole-foods diet and getting more sleep, both factors that have been shown to improve brain health. Plus the study was relatively small and limited in its scope: A brain scan can only show one moment in time and not a pattern of behavior. More research is needed to really understand the link between exercise and white matter.
Still, the findings are exciting, demonstrating the connection between exercise and brain health, and even showing that people can repair and regrow brain matter in adulthood. It's also heartening to know that if you do go a little overboard, making healthy choices can get you back on track.
And when it comes to that party this weekend (TGIF, baby!) perhaps it doesn't matter so much why it works but just that it does. So make sure to put your running shoes next to the door and jog to that Saturday morning brunch—especially if you're going to have a mimosa!