Each morning, millions of people around the globe head off to exercise or pour a cup of coffee. And many people do both. They do it to refresh themselves, for health reasons and enjoyment. As an avid exerciser but not a coffee drinker, I wanted to see which of the two was better. With science as my guide (and a bit of fun) this is coffee versus exercise.
Each day, approximately 300 billion cups of coffee are consumed around the world. It’s the third most popular drink behind water and tea. And the global industry is worth approximately $100 billion per year providing employment for tens of millions of people from the farmer to your local barista.
Which one is more popular?
Approximately 75% of US adults drink coffee, and nearly half drink it daily. A similar number of people around the world meet the guidelines for physical activity. Yet the US doesn’t even rank in the top twenty countries of coffee drinkers. Scandinavian countries top the list, followed by other European countries with Canada squeezing in at the tenth spot. But in these countries, exercise is not nearly as popular ranging from as low as 20% in the US to 60% in Europe.
It’s All in the Mind
Caffeine is the main reason people reach for their coffee cup. To give them that burst of energy. The same is true for exercise, a small amount of exercise can refresh your body and mind. Just ten minutes of exercise is more energizing than half a cup of coffee. And while both are refreshing, it’s only exercise that can help improve sleep disturbances, while coffee before bed may lead to them.
When it comes to how you think, people swear by the mental regenerative effects of coffee. However, the effects of coffee on cognitive function are unclear. Some studies show an improvement, while others do not, and yet others find it only helps in the context of sleep deprivation. Exercise has long been known to improve cognitive function and memory. It can even make you happy, all the while reducing your chances for depression and Alzheimer’s disease. With respect to coffee, studies in mice suggest it might prevent Alzheimer’s disease but it’s not clear if this effect translates into a benefit for you and I.
Preventing Disease and Early Death
Numerous studies indicate that people who drink coffee have a lower chance for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and early death. These studies suggest the optimal amount of coffee is between 2 to 5 cups per day, indicating that having some coffee is better than none. However, the benefits disappear at greater amounts and may even lead to increased risk at 10 or more cups per day.
Similarly, exercise is proven for preventing and treating diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The greatest benefits occur in people who go from no activity to some and continue up to approximately 12-14 hours of activity per week. After which, greater amounts of exercise are associated with no further benefits.
There is some evidence to suggest participation in extreme exercise may increase your chances for atherosclerosis and abnormal heart rhythms. However, this tends to be observed in people doing frequent high-intensity exercise and extreme endurance activities. In contrast, low and moderate levels of activity tend to continue to be beneficial, even at very high amounts.
Most people drink coffee because of its caffeine, yet many of the health benefits come from its other ingredients. Coffee contains antioxidants (molecules that counteract free radicals which can be damaging to our bodies). Foods such as berries are high in antioxidants but people tend to get most of their antioxidants through coffee and other drinks. As a result, moderate coffee intake is recommended in dietary guidelines, while exercise has no nutritional benefits.
Black coffee also has next to no calories. But calories come into play when you start adding milk cream and sugar. For example, a Starbucks tall café latte with whole milk has 180 calories, while a café mocha with whipped cream has 310 calories. Exercise, on the other hand, burns calories. Although not as much as people think.
Time, Money and Bad Breath
One of the biggest reasons people say they don’t exercise is a lack of time. This is despite the guidelines indicating as little as 20-30 minutes of moderate/vigorous activity per day. However, as little as 10 minutes of activity can have lasting benefits.
Dietary guidelines recommend between 3-5 cups of coffee per day. Averaging that to four cups per day and assuming it takes at least five minutes to make and drink a cup of coffee, results in 20 minutes of time per day. And if you buy your coffee at a café, this would take even longer. The same is true for those who go to the gym, court or field to exercise.
When it comes to price, exercise can be done for free. Walking and running are readily accessible and have no cost to them. Conversely, coffee has a cost to it, even if made in your home. And if you go out to buy your coffee, you could be paying two to four dollars each time. Where the cost of exercising increases beyond that of coffee is in the purchase of equipment and any fitness or community centre membership/admission fees.
And finally, unlike coffee, exercise does not result in bad breath.
In this head-to-head comparison of coffee versus exercise, both shared many of the same health benefits. And both are recommended by leading health organizations. In the end, I’m giving exercise a slight advantage (score 3 to 2). But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them together and get even greater benefits. 🙂
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