Researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder found that people who rarely exercised and drank alcohol suffered damage to white matter in the brain.
But damage was less extensive in drinkers who regularly exercised.
They said clinicians could prescribe exercise programmes to help treat psychological problems caused by heavy alcohol use.
In the study, 37 men and 23 women underwent a brain MRI and completed questionnaires assessing alcohol consumption and aerobic exercise participation. Nine participants (15%) had alcohol scores suggesting problem drinking.
Researchers then scanned the size of five white matter tracts in participants’ brains that are linked to alcohol consumption, and compared these with alcohol consumption and levels of exercise.
An association was found for two of these tracts in people having little exercise. But no such link was found among those undertaking high levels of exercise.
Aerobic exercise could be a promising strategy for reducing alcohol-related brain damage, the researchers concluded.
Lead author Hollis Karoly said: ‘These findings represent a first step in better understanding the relationship between alcohol, exercise, and the brain.’
She added: ‘Certainly clinicians could use these findings to support prescribing aerobic exercise programmes as an adjunct treatment for individuals dealing with psychological or physiological problems related to a heavy alcohol-use history.’