Wine and Exercise: A Promising Combination

Red and white wines showed equal health benefits in new research—among people who move.

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The European Society of Cardiology is currently convened in Barcelona for its annual congress, where an abundance of promising heart-disease research has been unveiled. Envious American eyes are on a study of regular wine consumption and its apparent health benefits.

Many studies in the past have found that wine drinkers have healthier hearts than abstainers, but the current trial—called In Vino Veritas (In Wine, Truth)—is one of the first studies to actually introduce wine into people’s lives and track its effects on their bodies.

Lead researcher Miloš Táborský, head of cardiology at the Palacký University Hospital in Olomouc in the Czech Republic, revealed the study's results in a presentation over the weekend, saying, “We found that moderate wine drinking was only protective in people who exercised. Red and white wine produced the same results.”

For one year, subjects drank “moderate” amounts of wine five days per week. For men, that meant 0.3 to 0.4 liters daily, about two to two-and-a-half glasses. For women it meant 0.2 to 0.3 liters, about one to two glasses. (A more common definition is one glass for women and two glasses for men.) Half of the 146 subjects drank pinot noir, and half drank a white “chardonnay-pinot.” The participants logged any and all alcohol consumption in journals, where they also kept track of their diets and physical activity.

By itself, drinking wine did not appreciably affect cholesterol, blood glucose, triglycerides, or levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein. It also did not appreciably damage people’s livers during the year, at least, based on liver-function tests.

But then Táborský and company ran a more specific analysis that looked at people who exercised. Among those who worked out twice per week and drank wine, there was significant improvement in cholesterol levels (increased HDL and decreased LDL) after a year of wine—red or white, no matter.

"Our current study shows that the combination of moderate wine drinking plus regular exercise improves markers of atherosclerosis," said Táborský, "suggesting that this combination is protective against cardiovascular disease."

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The United States has a storied history of gawking at European wine consumption, which includes some of my own work. In the 1970s, a large study of multiple countries in Europe showed that people who ate more saturated fat died earlier in a nearly linear relationship. But France seemed partially exempt, and the French also drank more wine than their counterparts. A seminal 1992 study in The Lancet by Serge Renaud and Michel De Lorgeril tied together the correlation in what the authors called a “French Paradox”: Mild to moderate wine consumption might protect against heart disease by “counteract[ing] the untoward effects of saturated fats.”

The French paradox fueled wine-industry marketing and a slew of studies hoping with varying degrees of candor that protective benefits of wine would be validated. The prevailing takeaway has been that mild to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with some health benefits, primarily of the cardiac variety, including a 17 percent decrease in all-cause mortality. But even very mild alcohol consumption has also been shown to introduce its own untoward risks, including esophageal and breast cancers. Wine has, in some studies, seemed to be more beneficial than other alcohols, and the prevailing theory behind that is the oxidative modification hypothesis: Antioxidants like polyphenols in grape skins neutralize harmful free radicals.

The red wine used in the In Vino Veritas study had more antioxidants than the white—almost ten times as many polyphenols, and six times as much resveratrol. So the fact that red and white wines were equally effective in this case argues against the antioxidant theory, as did a large study in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year that said resveratrol isn’t helping people.

“There may be some synergy between the low dose of ethyl alcohol in wine and exercise which is protective against cardiovascular disease,” Táborský said in his presentation, leaving other causal speculation to the rest of us. Táborský is also an automobile enthusiast and owner of a three-year old Weimaraner, according to his professional website.

He concluded with the caveat that despite the fact that only about a third of the world’s population drinks alcohol, alcohol use results in 3.3 million deaths every year. Lovely as it would be to say that drinking a moderate amount of wine is categorically a good idea, the study is just another drop in the conflicting wine research well. Thinking about health in terms of isolated dietary elements is, you know, a limited proposition, so this can't be an endorsement of anything other than exercise. If vineyard jogging becomes a thing, then it becomes a thing. I am not endorsing vineyard jogging or suggesting that anyone start a vineyard jogging group.

On a final dry note, the European Society of Cardiology reported that the participants in the study were required to return the corks from the wine bottles to confirm that they indeed drank the wine and did not sell it.