Why 10 Dry Months of Not Drinking Stems from Exercise

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

It's 10 months to the day since I suspended drinking. Here's why it's exercise that helped me build that mental strength.

It’s been 10 months today since I suspended drinking – I don’t think of it like I’ve stopped.

December 5, 2016, to October 5, 2017. Exactly 10 months. But who’s counting?!

I was a problem drinker. I don’t think I am an alcoholic exactly, I think of myself as an alcohol abuser. I can resist alcohol, I just often don’t, and once I get going I have trouble to stop. Maybe I’m just mincing words.

I’d drink almost every day, and at least 3 or 4 beers. Then I switched to wine because beer was too fattening. Then I went off wine because the taste got too strong. At the end there, I was exclusively drinking sake.

So I’d drink half a bottle of sake in the evening. The problem once you’ve drunk half a bottle of sake is that the glass most certainly is half full. Left to my own devices, I could easily polish off the rest and sometimes did.

All this stacked on the pounds, of course. I ended up with high blood pressure. My liver function wasn’t good. I felt tired, groggy in the morning, and sometimes just didn’t feel like getting up.

At the very end, I ended up in hospital. I went on a days-long bender, miserable about life, and needed a beer just to function. I went into St. Teresa’s Hospital and spent five days doing detox, starting December 5, 2016. That’s why I know the date so well.

Those five days left me with a lot of time to think, and I decided to make some changes.

I suspended drinking. It was meant to be a month at first, but after a month I just kept on going. This is a fitness blog, though, not some 12-step exercise, alcoholic apology or hard-life memoir.

The point is that I decided to make some changes, and I made them. And I found exercise. It’s like I’ve found religion.

Around the time I stopped drinking, I thought “I’ll start going to the gym every day.” I don’t know why, it just kinda called out to me.

I had a lot of time on my hands that I used to spend drinking, I didn’t want to go out to the pub with my buddies anymore, and I needed something to do.

I always played a lot of tennis, but at club level you’re not exactly in a grueling Grand Slam five-setter all the time. And you need a hitting partner.

I tried running before, but I always found it pretty boring. I hated the gym, too, but I wanted to shift my massive gut. So one day after tennis, I thought I’d work on the two machines that work your abs. Fortunately they were right by the entrance to the gym.

I decided to do that every day, those two machines. A few days later, I thought, “I’ll try this machine next door.” Pretty soon, I had a regular set of 8 to 10 machines that I’d do twice, quick rep sets of 20 at a time x 2.

Pretty soon I had to buy an entirely new wardrobe.

I thought of it as “cardio weights.” I started to do that every day, adding a few reps or an extra set, or an extra weight, here and there. Pretty soon I was feeling fitter, and doing sets of 25 at a time x 3.

It really gets my heart pumping. People always tell me I should be doing cardio as well as doing weights. If they tried out “cardio weights,” they’d soon realize that this is cardio.

Then the weight started to shed. Of course, the initial 5 lbs I lost was water retention. It just spills out of your body if you stop taking in the alcohol that forces your body to compensate for that dehydrating effect. But with exercise, I next started to lose fat, very rapidly, and also gain some muscle.

Within two months, I went from 190 lbs to less than 160 lbs. I had to buy an entire new wardrobe of clothes. I couldn’t believe it! Nobody can! A couple of people asked if I had cancer.

It turned out that my “cardio weights” was in fact a workout using High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. It developed by mistake for me, but when I got much more interested in the transformation that was happening to my body, and started reading about what was going on, I realized that was what I had happened upon.

High Intensity Interval Training really works. I guarantee it. If you like, I can show you how to do it. But equally, you can figure it out on your own.

Every person’s equivalent of “high intensity” is going to be different, of course, and that’s where a personal trainer can help. A trainer can also help with motivation. And if you’re paying one, hell you might as well exercise, you’re paying for it!

Anyway – this isn’t a sales pitch. I hope sincerely that reading this will give you some inspiration to “get fit.” Go it alone. I did.

With high-intensity training, an overweight retired former desk jockey who has never exercised in her/his life needs to start very slow. If you’re in reasonable shape and just looking to shed some mid-age spread, you can test yourself a little more. If you’re running triathlons, well, good for you! You already know all this!

Fitness has a lot of spillover benefits. What I soon discovered from exercising so much is that I simply didn’t want to drink anymore. I was feeling really good, lively, waking up every day eager to get up, get going, get to the gym and get to work. It felt great – and I certainly didn’t want that to stop.

Pretty soon, I totally forgot about drinking/not drinking. I was too busy building little tests for myself in my fitness routine, and working, and handling my family duties, and being a dad and a husband, and trying badly to win league tennis matches, and figuring out how to use Instagram, and explaining to people, over and over again, and because they asked, exactly how I had lost so much weight so fast.

It is not because I stopped drinking – that helped at first, but it’s the regular exercise that sustained the weight loss and kept it going. Stopping drinking maybe accounted for the first 10 lbs of that 30 lbs shed.

Pretty soon, I started to pay far more attention to what I was eating as well. I started reading nutrition labels in the store, scarfing up articles about nutrition in The New York Times and other reliable sources, looking for whole-wheat pasta and brown rice and brown sugar and high-protein, high-carb, low-fat energy bars.

Stuff I’d never done before. Now I’m studying for my nutrition-trainer certification with Precision Nutrition. I’m that into it.

But you know what else I found? Self-control.

I found that it was far easier than I imagined to “eat right,” get to the gym every day for a short set, and generally live a much healthier life than I had before. Where I once couldn’t resist it when my buddy at the bar said “How about another?” now I was mentally clear and strong in what I wanted to do.

Exercise helps you build self-control.

It takes a little mental strength to get started in the process of “getting fit.” You may not notice the benefits at first. But the very first time you notice a little muscle where you never had any before, or can tie your belt a notch tighter, or feel your top flapping a little loser when you put it on, you’ll feel wonderfully enthused.

And you’ll go back for more. It’ll give you mental encouragement to continue that physical process, and pretty soon you’ll be addicted, like me, to exercise. You will actually build not only physical fitness but mental strength and self-control.

It sounds crazy. Like I really have gone off the deep end with my fitness “religion.” But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Take the word of the scientists at the University of Kansas. Those Bluejays have studied whether exercise can help you build mental strength. And the answer is very clear: it does.

Their study, recently published in the journal Behavior Modification, shows that people develop better self-control when they exercise.

They took four people at first who were sedentary and overweight, and got them to walk and jog with the scientists for 45 mins at a time, 3 times a week. They did this for two months.

They told the study subjects that they were training for a 5K race. But the tricky little scientists got them to fill out questionnaires and report what was going on in their daily lives, too.

What they were actually measuring was their “delay discounting,” the ability of people to put off, say, being given HK$20 now if they can have HK$100 tomorrow.

Most little kids can’t do this at all. Leave them a room with a cookie, and tell them you’ll give them two cookies and HK$5 in 10 minutes if they wait, and step outside – most of them will eat the cookie.

Adults have a better shot, but a lot of us still “eat the cookie.”

Exercise is in effect a form of “delay discounting.” You are putting in effort now, hoping and trusting that it will benefit you later on.

The study tests developed much better delay-discounting ability while exercising 45 mins x 3 per week. Just in case that was a fluke with 4 subjects, the scientists tested it again with 12 women. It worked again.

They built self-control, and they got fitter. The two go together. Body and mind.

So this blog post has nothing to do with my 10 months of abstinence. And everything to do with it.

I probably couldn’t have achieved it without finding exercise. Little did I know when I started to go to the gym every day … took that first step, literally, towards the abs machine … that I would actually build my mental strength to the point where I a) stopped wanting to drink whatsoever b) wanted to exercise every day c) eat right and d) find it surprisingly easy to do all of the above.

Exercise is not a religion, that’s insulting to people who are deeply religious. I respect that.

But exercise can become a way of life. It can help you build mental fortitude so that many things in life become a lot easier. With the right mindful approach (more on that later) and positive thinking, pretty soon your whole life becomes a bit of a cake walk.

Only without quite as much cake.

Why not give it a try? Today?

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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