Water vs. Sports Drinks: What's Best for our Bodies

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As the temperatures heat up, many of us find ourselves reaching for a cool drink to stay hydrated. When is it appropriate to grab a sports or electrolyte drink, and when is it best to go with water? Andrew Nish, MD, UnityPoint Health, helps us understand what the best drinks are for hydration.

When to Consume Sports and Electrolyte Drinks

Sports and electrolyte drinks often seem like the perfect way to quench your thirst when working out, but according to Dr. Nish, there’s a very limited group of people who should be drinking them. The recommendation is adults and children should only have sports drinks during extended and heavy exercise that lasts longer than an hour.

“Water, water and water should be the beverage of choice for hydration before, during and after physical activity or exercise routines lasting less than one hour,” Dr. Nish says.

He says two hours before intense exercise, it’s best to drink 16 ounces of water, not a sports drink. After prolonged and strenuous activity, rehydration should mainly be done with water, if the athlete has been consuming sports drinks during the actual event.

However, eight to 16 ounces of a sports drink would not be unreasonable following an intense and long workout.

Benefits of Sports and Electrolyte Drinks

  • Carbohydrates. If you have been performing strenuous exercises for over an hour, it’s a good idea to add a carbohydrate source. Dr. Nish says fluid containing carbohydrates can be consumed at 30 to 60 grams per hour. He says most sports drinks will provide two to 19 grams of carbohydrate per eight ounces. Carbohydrates come in the form of sugars or polymerized glucose.
  • Sodium. All sports drinks contain some sodium, usually between 35 and 200 mg per eight ounces. Sodium helps the body retain water.
  • Potassium. Most sports drinks also have between 15 and 90 mg of potassium per eight ounces. However, Dr. Nish suggests choosing a drink higher in sodium, if you are participating in prolonged endurance events or are heavily sweating.
  • Amino acids. Some sports drinks also contain amino acids, which are said to enhance muscle recovery. Dr. Nish says most children and adults eating a well-balanced diet do not need this additive.

Are Sports Drinks Unhealthy?

Sports drinks were designed for those performing intense physical activity. In fact, the original sports drink, Gatorade, was developed to help replenish carbohydrates and electrolytes in high intensity athletes at the University of Florida in 1965.

“These drinks were never intended to be consumed by the general public, but unfortunately, they have been marketed to the masses with the underlying message that if you drink these, you will become a great athlete like Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, most people will just gain weight,” Dr. Nish says.

He says sports drinks, electrolyte drinks or any sugary drinks, like juice, lemonade, soda or Kool-Aid, should not be consumed for meals or snacks and should not replace water. These sugary drinks often lead to excessive caloric intake and substantially increase the risk of obesity in both children and adults.

Drinking too many sugary sports drinks can also lead to tooth enamel erosion. Dr. Nish says that’s because most sports drinks have a pH between three and four, which is associated with enamel demineralization.

Sports Drink Alternatives: Coconut Water, Infused Water, Milk and/or Energy Drinks

  • Infused water. For the average person, these offer no advantages and many contain lots of sugar. In fact, Dr. Nish says some have up to eight teaspoons per serving. As far as the vitamins, Dr. Nish says most people should be getting all they need from a diet rich in vegetables, fruits and nuts.
  • Coconut water. Dr. Nish says coconut water has very low levels of carbohydrates, as well as small amounts of sodium and potassium. It adds nothing over water during a workout.
  • Milk. It has been touted as a good recovery drink because it provides carbohydrates, protein, electrolytes and vitamin D. Dr. Nish says there are a few studies comparing milk with sports drinks, and they seem to show there is little difference in the two, as far as athletic performance. However, he reiterates with all drinks used during exercise, this only applies to strenuous, prolonged exercise and not short duration, low-intensity activity.
  • Energy drinks. Dr. Nish says many children and adolescents don’t differentiate sports drinks and energy drinks. Energy drinks, in general, contain a large amount of sugar, but more importantly, they also contain added stimulants, like caffeine. Dr. Nish says energy drinks should never be consumed by children due to the threat of caffeine overdose.

How Much Water Do You Need?

The average person should be drinking eight to 12 ounces of water each hour during the heat of summer. If you are working in the heat for several hours, Dr. Nish suggests you consume 12 to 16 ounces a couple hours before work.

“Look at the color of your urine for signs of proper hydration. Light yellow or clear urine means you are properly hydrated. Dark, concentrated urine means you do not have enough fluid on board,” Dr. Nish says.

If you become thirsty, it’s a sign that you’ve waited too long to drink water. Signs of dehydration include dry mouth, cracked lips, decrease in urine output and dark urine, irritability, drowsiness, dry skin, low energy, headache and extreme thirst.

The Bottom Line

“Save your money and drink water,” Dr. Nish said.

Water should be the primary hydration source for children and adults, and sports drinks should only be used during time of high intensity and prolonged athletic events.

If you have any questions about hydration during exercise, please make sure to consult your UnityPoint Health primary care provider.