Why its ok to fail at dry january

Dry January: why it’s time totally fine if you've already failed at going teetotal

Posted by for Nutrition

Already failed at doing Dry January? That’s OK. In fact, as writer and occasional binge-drinker Lisa Bowman explores, going teetotal for a month probably isn’t going to work for most of us.

If you’ve already failed at Dry January, you’re not alone. By 6 January 2021, 2.7 million people had already given up on their new year’s resolution to go teetotal and the number is no doubt similar this time around.

The fitness and wellbeing industries tend to encourage that we ditch alcohol at this time of the year, probably because alcoholic drinks (especially cocktails – here’s looking at you, piña colada) are usually calorie-dense with little nutritional value. And then there’s the junk food many of us consume after a night on the sauce. When I get boozy, my fitness routine goes out the window; while I might manage some gentle, floor-based YouTube yoga on even my most hungover days, cardio is firmly crossed off the list.  

After the excess of the holiday season, many of us look to Dry January as a way of ‘cleansing our sins’ and kick-starting a fitness routine – replacing late nights sinking mulled wine with early mornings at the gym. (For the uninitiated, Dry January is Alcohol Change UK’s annual one-month alcohol-free challenge, which thousands take part in every year.) 

There are, of course, a number of health and fitness benefits associated with ditching alcohol, from improved sleeping patterns to better hydration and reduced blood pressure. And this can make working out easier in a number of ways. 

The NHS recommends you don’t drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week, and that if you’re exceeding that amount, you should be spreading the load over at least three days. (For reference, a 25ml shot of spirit is 1 unit, a small glass of wine is 1.5 units and a pint of lower-strength beer is 2 units.) 

I’m your typical binge drinker, consuming all my weekly units in one heavy night rather than knocking a couple of rum and cokes back after work a few times a week. For me, completely cutting out alcohol is way easier than sticking with long-term healthy drinking patterns. All it takes is avoiding big social situations for a few weeks, and before I know it, Dry January’s done and I can go back to my feral ways – rewarding the abstinence with even more booze.

In fact, a 2021 study by researchers from Bristol University published in the Drug And Alcohol Dependence journal found that increase in participation in Dry January between 2015 and 2018 was not associated with large corresponding changes in people drinking less six months later, showing that a month of abstinence may not actually affect everyone’s drinking patterns in the long run. 

Banishing the booze can have some benefits

Despite that, PT Lynsey Suzanne believes: “Overall, Dry January is a good initiative as it encourages people to think about not just how much they drink but what their individual relationship with alcohol is and how this can impact their fitness goals and nutritional habits.

“For example, if you often skip workouts after a hangover or eat poorly during and after drinking and are able to see and feel the benefits of not drinking during Dry January, this could lead you to review your drinking habits in subsequent months.” The drawbacks come, however, when you cut back on everything you enjoy, like social drinking on a meal out, and go hard on your fitness goals with an ‘all or nothing’ approach, she says. “This can then lead to drinking more than usual in subsequent months, which has a worsening impact on your fitness and nutritional goals.”

Of course, we’re all different; if you have a healthy relationship with exercise and alcohol, then Dry Jan could be the perfect new year turbo boost, before settling back into your usual balanced lifestyle. But if you’re a creature of extremes like me, you might want to read on. (If you’re physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol, then this advice may be unsuitable, so please seek advice from your GP). 

But strict, short-term challenges set us up for failure

“Short-term resolutions can be great opportunities for someone to experiment with a different lifestyle and appreciate the benefits of a different routine they might not know is possible for them. But they also come with potential risks,” explains Vanessa Michielon, movement specialist and founder of the Transformative Movement Method.

“When we embrace a challenge, we tend to attach lots of value to the outcome, ie making it to the end. To do that, we often force drastic changes, like completely banishing specific foods/drinks.”

Once we make it to the end of a strict diet, for example, we’re desperate to go back to the food we cut out (which is why diets are rubbish). We don’t have the willpower or mental resources to continue in a similar way in the following months after an all-or-nothing challenge, and it’s when we struggle to comply with the rules, Michielon says, that “we might get easily frustrated with ourselves and give up half way through. 

“For some people, especially those who already feel they have too much to control in their life, setting the bar too high can generate anxiety, which might draw them even closer to the very thing they want to avoid (comfort food, drinking, inactivity).” 

When it comes to alcohol, slow and steady wins the race

“In my experience, it’s better to take a slower approach in reducing alcohol consumption, rather than going completely sober for Dry January,” advises clinical hypnotherapist Alex Saxton.

“When you deny yourself of something like alcohol, it becomes more desirable in your mind, making the urge to drink alcohol even stronger than before.” You may have had a big session on the day Dry January ended in previous years, or know someone who always has a wet February to make up for their abstinence. That urge to binge is probably going to have a bigger negative impact on your exercise regime than if you just kept drinking moderately.

“I find the best results come from the combination of reducing alcohol and increasing exercise each week during the month of January,” Saxton continues.

“Exercise can also help people feel more motivated to reduce their alcohol intake. For example doing exercise such as an evening run can be a powerful deterrent to drinking alcohol later on. Reason being, not only does exercise offer an alternative high to drinking alcohol, but after a good sweat, the majority of us would rather treat ourselves to a refreshing alcohol-free drink rather than reaching for a dehydrating glass of wine.” 

Instead of Dry January, try redefining your drinking goals

Evelyn Joyce, co-founder and head of fitness at Balance + Glo, advises planning ahead and writing down your targets.

“You could set a limit on the number of days that you consume alcohol and/or reduce the quantity of alcohol you drink,” Joyce suggests.

“Ensure that you set quantifiable targets (eg a limit of two alcoholic drinks) and write them down so that you can measure your progress. Seeing progress against your targets will serve to motivate you and enable you to adjust your goals accordingly, eg once you have successfully hit your goal for two to four weeks, challenge yourself and further reduce your alcohol consumption. You’ll find yourself feeling fresher and seeing the benefits from improved fitness, and you’ll want to continue progressing past the month of January. 

A more realistic goal might be to set specific dates that you'll drink. That way, you can maintain an active social life and commit to your fitness goals.
A more realistic goal might be to set specific dates that you'll drink. That way, you can maintain an active social life and commit to your fitness goals.

“It’s important not to set yourself up to fail, and set realistic goals. This approach is more likely to lead to the creation of healthy habits and sustainable change.”

So, instead of cutting alcohol out completely for a month, I’ll be setting a new year goal of only drinking three drinks on my Saturday night at the pub. This will allow me to spend more time running, as I can still set my alarm for a Sunday morning jog after a few drinks, but after seven? Forget it.  

Ask yourself why you’re cutting out alcohol

Most of us have our vices, and alcohol is a common one. However, simply replacing one vice (gin) with another (the gym) for a month may not be the smartest move if that vice is used as a coping mechanism.

“Alcohol can be a easy coping mode to slip into, and exercise can either be a healthy or unhelpful substitute depending on how we utilise it,” says Ruth Micallef, a sub-specialised eating disorders counsellor.

“If we engage with alcohol as a way to ‘detach and self-soothe’, there is a chance that excessive exercise could be used in the same way if we don’t get to the root of why we need something to self-soothe in the first place. Whereas if alcohol is a healthier part of your lifestyle, this is unlikely to be such an issue when you cut it out in January.”

If you know you drink emotionally, it may be worth speaking to a qualified therapist to discuss healthier, sustainable strategies. 

Remember: alcohol isn’t necessarily the devil

Let’s be real – alcohol can be incredibly harmful when misused, but it can also be delicious and fun (in moderation). Light-to-moderate drinking has been shown to release endorphins, which make us feel good and promote social bonding.

“As a personal trainer/fitness coach, I would rather you have a glass of wine one evening than end up resenting the programme you are on and binging days later,” says Paige Davis, aka The Fun Fitness Coach.

“Life is about living (something that’s become increasingly apparently during the pandemic) and appreciating our health. Just try to enjoy alcohol in moderation and use exercise and healthy eating to balance this out.’ 

There are actually a number of studies that suggest there are health benefits to moderate drinking. In fact, a 2014 study of almost 400,000 adults showed that women who drank light-moderate amounts of alcohol (including those who occasionally drank heavily) had a 30-40% lower risk of death from coronary heart disease, compared with lifetime light drinkers.

In a 2017 study of almost 2 million adults, non-drinking was associated with an increased risk of a number of cardiovascular diseases, compared to moderate drinking.

Of course, these – like all – studies should be taken with a pinch of salt. What they often don’t take into account is if the non-drinkers are lifelong abstainers or former heavy drinkers (the latter of whom have a higher mortality rate when it comes to cardiovascular disease). However, what they do suggest is that while alcohol is most certainly not a health elixir, it can be consumed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle. 

How about making 2022 the year of balance?

Interestingly, in a recent study published in the Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise journal, researchers found that women with moderate and high cardiorespiratory fitness were actually more likely to be moderate and heavy alcohol consumers, respectively, compared to those with lower fitness levels. This may be because we feel like we’ve ‘earned’ the extra cocktails, so it’s good to keep that in mind when increasing exercise to make sure you don’t overcompensate afterwards. 

It could also have something to do with your personality type: a 2014 study saw a positive correlation between moderate exercise and drinking at higher levels of impulsivity. This was linked to the sensation-seeking reward system in the brain’s prefrontal cortex – essentially, some people get the same thrill from drinking as they do from CrossFit, so they do it all. 

So, while I won’t be participating in Dry January, I will be ensuring I start the new year as I mean to go on – with a sustainable, balanced way of living, incorporating things that bring me joy. And yes, that includes both rum and running. Just not on the same days – and both in moderation.

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