Summer is quickly moving along, and soon the leaves will be turning. Hopefully you’ve been able to get out and enjoy the fine weather, and maybe take advantage of the longer days to walk, swim, golf, or play tennis. All great ways to be outside and do your body some good at the same time.
Physical activity, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, can often leave you sweaty and parched. So what should you drink, and when? Do you really need those fancy sports drinks? Or is plain old water just as good? Read on to find out how to stay hydrated before, during, and after being physically active.
The answer is pretty obvious: to avoid becoming dehydrated. When you’re dehydrated, your body doesn’t have enough water to function properly. You lose water through sweating, breathing, crying, salivating, urinating, and having bowel movements. When you’re exercising, water is primarily lost through sweating and heavy breathing. If you’re an athlete or playing a sport, for example, being dehydrated can impair your performance. More importantly, dehydration can cause a number of symptoms, and some of them are potentially dangerous.
Symptoms of mild dehydration include:
• Dry mouth
• Being thirsty
• Muscle cramps
• Dark urine
Symptoms of severe dehydration include:
• Rapid heartbeat
• Rapid breathing
• Feeling confused
• Feeling very sleepy
• Heat stroke
Severe dehydration is a medical emergency, and needs to be treated promptly. Also, keep in mind that high blood sugar levels can increase the likelihood of becoming dehydrated: When blood sugars are high, you’ll end up urinating more often.
How to rehydrate
Your body can lose more than a quart of water in one hour of exercise, depending on the intensity of your exercise and the air temperature. However, fluid needs vary from person to person; for example, someone training for a triathlon will have greatly different fluid needs compared to someone walking around the block for 30 minutes. It’s important to start off your physical activity in a state of hydration. In other words, aim to drink about 8 ounces of fluid roughly 20–30 minutes before you start your workout. During activity, shoot for about 7–10 ounces every 10–20 minutes. And don’t forget to replenish afterward by drinking at least 8 ounces of fluid. If you want to be more accurate about figuring out your fluid needs, weigh yourself before and after your workout. For every pound of fluid that you lose during your workout, drink 16–24 ounces of fluid afterwards. Note, too, that the amount of fluid you lose is based on the duration and intensity of your exercise, as well as the climate.
What to drink
Now comes the decision. What do you drink? It’s very tempting to turn to sports drinks to meet your fluid needs. After all, professional athletes swig Gatorade, so maybe you should too. And ads for sports drinks have us all worried about electrolytes, protein, and such. But do you really need a sports drink? Here’s a rundown on what’s out there, and what you really need.
Water: Water is hardly exciting, but the reality is that for most people (meaning, everyone other than elite athletes), water will keep you hydrated just fine. And according to the American College of Sports Medicine, for physical activity lasting less than one hour, there’s really no evidence that drinking a sports drink will provide any more benefit than good old H2O.
Vitamin water: OK, so if water is the best choice for activity lasting less than 60 minutes, surely a vitamin-fortified water is a good thing, right? Not necessarily. If you’re eating healthfully and including a variety of foods in your diet, you likely aren’t going to need extra vitamins. And if you are taking vitamin supplements, there’s no need to drink them in your water. Furthermore, there’s always the risk of getting too many vitamins, as well. Also, watch out for some vitamin waters, as they can contain a hefty amount of carbohydrate.
Protein water: It was bound to happen sooner or later: Protein has now been added to water. A 500-milliliter bottle of For Goodness Shakes protein water contains 20 grams of protein (the equivalent of eating about 3 ounces of chicken) in the form of whey and casein protein. It also contains 86 calories, but surprisingly, it contains no sugar. Protein2O is another brand, containing 70 calories, 15 grams of protein, and 0 grams of sugar. But do you need protein water? Well, if you’re a competitive body builder or serious about your strength training, you likely do need a little more protein. However, you can easily get your extra protein from food sources.
Flavored water: If plain old tap water is less than appealing, there’s nothing wrong with having a little flavor in your water, especially if it helps you drink more. But choose your flavored water carefully. In other words, scrutinize the Nutrition Facts label. Avoid flavored waters that are high in calories and carbs. You can choose a flavored water that contains a nonnutritive sweetener, but even better is to flavor your own water with fresh lemon, lime, berries, cucumber, or mint (called infused water).
Sports drinks: Sports drinks go beyond water — they contain electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, along with sugar and, sometimes, vitamins. Sports drinks have their place, but generally aren’t necessary unless you’re working out for more than one hour. Also, these drinks typically contain about 14 grams of carb per 8 ounces, so consider the effect on your blood sugar. Sugar-free sports drinks are available, and contain nonnutritive sweeteners such as sucralose. Examples of sports drinks are Gatorade, Powerade, Propel, and BodyArmor.
Energy drinks: Energy drinks are similar to sports drinks in that they contain sugar and sodium. They also are jacked up with caffeine, which can boost performance and alertness, and depending on the drink, may have other ingredients, including taurine (an amino sulfonic acid) and herbs, such as gingko biloba, ginseng, and guarana. The downside of energy drinks? Besides the calories and carbs (8.4 ounces of Red Bull has 110 calories and 28 grams of carb), the caffeine can cause jitteriness, heart palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia. Sugar-free versions are available, although you’ll still get the caffeine jolt. Red Bull, Monster Energy, and Full Throttle are popular brands.
Chocolate milk: Only kids drink chocolate milk, right? Well, some athletes may, too. Research shows that chocolate milk is a good way to replenish after a workout. Like sports drinks, chocolate milk contains electrolytes, and its carb and protein balance help to repair muscle tears and replenish glycogen stores, too. In addition, chocolate milk seems to boost performance. However, consider the calories and carbs: 8 ounces of low-fat chocolate milk will set you back about 160 calories and 26 grams of carb. Fine if you’ve just run a 10K, but probably not necessary if you’ve ridden your bike for 30 minutes.
Coconut water: You’ve probably seen coconut water displayed on grocery shelves and maybe even sipped some. Popular brands include Vita Coco, Zico, and O.N.E. Coconut water is the juice that’s found inside a green coconut. It’s not the same as coconut milk. On average, 8 ounces of coconut water contains about 50 calories and 9 grams of carb. It’s touted as being a good choice for a “recovery” drink because, like sports drinks, it contains electrolytes, along with fiber and a little protein. Is it a good choice for you? That depends. If you’re a serious athlete, you’d probably be better off with a sports drink. If you’re a weekend warrior, water should be your go-to fluid. However, if you like the taste of coconut water and it helps you drink more fluids, it can be a good choice. But keep an eye on those calories and carbs.
Staying hydrated and avoiding dehydration is key when you’re being active. The best beverage for you will depend on the amount and intensity of your activity. Plus, if you have diabetes, you’ve got your blood sugars to think of, too. If you’re not sure about how to balance your blood sugars with activity, or if you have questions about nutrition and athletic performance, check with a registered dietitian for individualized guidance.