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Water VS. Sports Drink Debate

You’ve been exercising for an hour and a half, your muscles are weak, your shirt is drenched, you’ve recently noticed a minor headache and you’re beyond thirsty. Do you reach for your water bottle filled with water or do you grab a bottle of one of those flavorful sports drinks?

The water versus sports drinks debate has been a topic of discussion for many years. There are a multitude of opinions because there are different circumstances in which one choice trumps the other. For instance, if you exercised for less than 60 minutes at a low-intensity you should drink water, because you have not been sweating enough to lose more than water.

How does your body use water?

The body uses water to:

  • Provide hydration to every cell, tissue  and to organs
  • Regulate the body’s temperature
  • Transport oxygen and nutrients
  • Dispose of waste

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the adequate intake of water for non-active men and women ages 19-30 is 3.7 L and 2.7 L per day, which averages out to be 15.6 cups/day(men) and 11.5 cups/day(women). Depending on the amount of physical activity each person participates in, that amount doubles or even triples at times. Another rule of thumb is that you should drink 4-6 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes during intense periods of activity.

If you do a high-intensity workout for longer than 60 minutes, than the choice of replenishment would switch from water to a sports drink, mainly to replace the depletion of electrolytes and carbohydrates.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are electrically charged ions in the body that have their respective duty to perform vital functions inside the body. After exercising, there are five key electrolytes that the body needs to replenish after they have been depleted:

  1. Sodium: controls the total amount of water in the body, regulates muscle and nerve functions
  2. Chloride: maintains proper pH balance & respiratory difficulties
  3. Potassium: regulates heartbeat & muscle function, nerve transmission
  4. Magnesium: synthesis of both DNA and RNA, maintains heart rate, stabilizes blood sugar
  5. Calcium: transmission of nerve impulses, blood clotting and muscle contraction

In addition to electrolytes, carbohydrates are ingredients in sports drinks, which provide energy needed during prolonged exercise. Carbohydrates improve cognitive function and the ability to maintain focus as well as limit fatigue. However, most sports drinks contain sugars which are not ideal for anyone looking to lose weight. Common sugars such as glucose, sucrose and fructose are often found in sports drinks to add flavor but don’t add any nourishment, therefore they should be avoided. In addition to sports drinks with sugars, you should also avoid carbonated sports drinks, as they only offer empty calories without any beneficial long term effects.

Instead of reaching for that flavorful bottle of Gatorade or Powerade, try some coconut water which contains all five essential electrolytes and no added sugars or fats.

In conclusion, if you are working out at a low-intensity for less than 60 minutes then water will be sufficient. If you are working at high intensity for more than 45 minutes, you need a sports drink to replenish the lost electrolytes.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Dehydration

Mild to Moderate Dehydration Severe Dehydration
Dry, Sticky Mouth Extreme Thirst
Headache Irritability and Confusion
Constipation Dry Skin that doesn’t back when you pinch it
Dizziness or lightheadedness Rapid heartbeat and breathing
Dry, cool skin Low Blood Pressure
Muscle Cramps In serious cases, delirium and unconsciousness


By: Cierra Washington, ATC

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