Tough? Try not drinking for a month

Times Staff Writer

For moderate social drinkers, hopping on the wagon for a month shouldn’t have been that daunting of a task.

Not just any moderate social drinkers, but a handful of men and women who are exceptionally fit, as in training-for-a-marathon fit. These are people used to discipline and healthy lifestyles, people who can get through a rigorous boot camp class without hurling. Yet some found that wagon trip much more uncomfortable than they thought, and didn’t even last a month. Some didn’t even make it a week.

“It was really hard,” says participant Lala Alvarez. “I told people I was laying off the alcohol, and there was this pressure -- ‘Have a drink with us! This drink tastes fantastic!’ I’m like, stop it.”

The few who made it, successfully braving social occasions and surprisingly intense peer pressure, are now believers in what their boot camp instructor promised all along (although almost all started drinking again after the month was over): No alcohol means better sleep, more energy, healthier eating habits -- and improved workouts.


And while one new study casts doubt on their efforts, other research backs them up.

The idea was hatched in October by their boot camp instructor Marco Reed, who had gone without alcohol for a month several years ago with one of his personal training clients and found it gave him more confidence, improved his memory and boosted his energy. “I actually felt amazing,” he says. “I felt more clear. I had control over my actions.” And after a while, he adds, he didn’t feel like drinking “was something I had to do.”

Reed, 34, has developed a devoted following of boot camp students and personal training clients in his three years in Los Angeles. He has intermittently encouraged individual clients to stop drinking, especially those training for something such as a marathon or those with hefty weight loss goals. But he’s never asked an entire class to take the plunge. (By the way, he can tell if a client has downed a few the night before: telltale signs include smelling like alcohol, exercising with less gusto and seeming a bit off.

The approaching holidays seemed a good time to propose it again, considering it’s a season filled with health-busting landmines.

“I find that people who drink have trouble getting to their fitness goals,” Reed says. Drinking “is really a sabotage. It breaks down their discipline.”

So with a cautiously optimistic “OK,” six out of eight members of his West Hollywood boot camp enthusiastically, if naively, agreed to stop drinking for what Reed dubbed “Sober October.”

Melissa Bolton already knew the price of indulgence. The L.A.-based entertainment attorney who’s in her mid-30s says that even a couple of drinks sometimes finds her dragging mentally and physically the next day and makes her feel dehydrated. Drinking the night before also occasionally takes a toll on her performance in Reed’s class, especially balance maneuvers.

“None of us are getting any younger,” says Bolton, who finished out the month. “It’s not like when we were in college. It messes with you the next day.”

Staying sober the night before boot camp, Bolton discovered, gave her stamina. “You’re not gasping for breath, and you’re not avoiding every fast change of direction.”

Jimena Barrera, who also took the pledge, found that not indulging in her usual two glasses of wine or a martini and a half resulted in more energy and earlier workouts the next morning. “Instead of running at 9:30 I’d go at 7:30,” says Barrera, a 31-year-old medical office worker based in L.A. “In boot camp I wasn’t as tired, and I would get there 15 minutes before class started, instead of at 11 sharp.”

Curtis Larsen, who socializes with clients and friends several nights a week, noticed a difference almost immediately. “It made me aware of my bad sleep patterns,” says the 40-year-old from West Hollywood who is an account manager for Starz. When he drank, he fell asleep immediately, but staying asleep was more difficult. Not drinking allowed him to sleep through the night. For a while. Larsen caved after five days when a tempting Cabernet beckoned, but for the record, he feels pretty guilty about it.

Fewer cocktails also meant less food for Alvarez, who works in marketing and sales for Starz. “I found myself more conscious of my eating habits,” says the 34-year-old from Burbank. “I wasn’t as likely to make poor decisions. It was easier to avoid appetizers. Alcohol makes you so relaxed, so you’re thinking, ‘So what, I’ve already had these extra calories in the drink, why not try this?’ ”

Alas, Alvarez’s birthday party two weeks later proved to be her downfall.

Everyone discovered along the way that even for the occasional drinker, there’s more to quitting cold turkey than saying “I’ll pass.” There’s the Pavlovian desire that kicks in Friday around 6 p.m.; coping with social activities built around drinking; and the well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning attempts by friends and family to derail healthful habits.

Some of the pledge-takers avoided alcohol-laden social occasions, saying they didn’t want to be tempted or persuaded to drink. With good reason. “I didn’t anticipate the pressure,” says Alvarez, who, like Larsen, finds herself out to dinner frequently with friends or clients. “If I stated that I was staying away from alcohol, that’s when I felt that people were uncomfortable with me not drinking,” she says. “If I didn’t say anything, didn’t make a big deal of it, they were less likely to notice.”

Barrera too was surprised at the pressure to drink. “I figured everyone around me is a mature adult. But it’s a bonding thing, that’s how they look at it.” One friend was so perturbed by her lack of alcohol that she had to hold a glass of wine in her hand to make him feel comfortable.

And that, says one psychologist, speaks volumes about what happens when the social status quo is disturbed.

Someone declaring they’re not drinking prompts an imbalance, says North Carolina-based psychologist Charlie Brown, a spokesman for the American College of Sports Medicine, whose clients include athletes. It “changes the rules of social interaction, and there’s an implicit tension there.” The person who is drinking “begins to question, ‘Is what I’m doing right? Do I need to change?’ ”

That shift in balance, he says, can prompt a counterbalance to bring stability back to the situation. Enter the dreaded peer pressure, a la “Come on, one drink won’t hurt.”

But it might. Some experts warn that even moderate drinkers can experience deleterious effects, even the next day. “One, two or three drinks does affect a number of functions,” says Dr. Ernest Noble, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Alcohol Research Center. Alcohol, he adds, can affect cognitive abilities, sleep and sexual functions.

And after a fitness feat such as a 10K run, says Noble, the best follow-up may not be downing a few cocktails. “The muscles have been under tremendous stress, and alcohol further damages them,” he says.

One research study in 2001 found that moderate alcohol consumption after exercise resulted in adverse changes in blood viscosity. When blood is too viscous, or thick, it can damage blood vessel walls.

But there is some good news for the weaker-willed. A new study, published this month in the online journal BMC Public Health, found that moderate drinkers are less likely to be obese than nondrinkers and heavy drinkers. Researchers found that people who drank one to two glasses regularly, but less than five a week, were significantly less likely to be obese than other groups.

But don’t start devising the mai tai diet. The study’s authors say that they’re not quite sure why this is, but suggest further study. Until science manages to work out the ultimate stance on alcohol and exercise, however, the weekend warrior and the hard-core athlete alike will have to decide for themselves what works.

“By just doing it for a month it gives them something to compare their future to,” says Reed, whose alcohol consumption is down to a drink every couple of months. “Even if they go back, they can reflect on this. I think in the long run they’ll do it again, or at least feel like they have a choice, that they don’t have to drink.”

It may be sinking in.

“I recognized that I don’t have to have a drink every time I go out with my clients,” says Alvarez, “or that I can reduce the number of drinks I have.” At a girlfriend’s birthday party a few weeks ago she declined alcohol and “I really noticed the difference. I felt better, sharper.”

Larsen might try complete sobriety again, perhaps with friends. “I tend to drink with the same people,” he says, “so if we could do it as a group it might be easier. I’d be open to it.”

That actually isn’t a bad idea, says Brown, who believes a strong support system is key to fulfilling such a goal. He also seconds doing what these people did, such as avoiding risky situations until ready to handle them, and not always broadcasting your sobriety to a group of drinkers. Reed suggests keeping a journal to track successes and frustrations, “which will bring clarity to the situation.”

And if all else fails, keep in mind this revelation from Bolton: “The more sober you are, the less entertaining drunk people are.”