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Sports Drinks: Benefits and Issues

It is summertime in Ohio along with most of the world. In North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and other parts of the world major sporting events from triathlons, marathons, the Tour de France, to professional baseball, soccer, to even the Olympics, many events will be played during these warmer months.

At these major events, professional athletes will be seen sipping on brightly-colored beverages before, during and after competitions. Sports drinks around the world have become big business as millions of dollars are paid for athlete endorsements, commercials, sponsorship, and research. In this article, I’ll break down water vs sports drinks, the benefits, the issues of them, and when they should be used.

Water vs Sports Drinks

Water makes up 60% of the human body, while the brain is made up of 73% water. It is critical to stay hydrated throughout the day as one study of women showed that a fluid loss of 1.36% after exercise impaired mood and concentration and increased the frequency of headaches.

The main ingredients in sports drinks are water, along with carbohydrates and electrolytes. Water and electrolytes are lost through sweat as your body is continually losing water through your skin and the air when you exhale. These water losses can increase depending on the environment, temperature, and elevation.

The Benefits of Sports Drinks

Sports drinks are designed to replace the water, carbs, and electrolytes that are lost during exercise. They provide these three important ingredients to improve exercise performance or recovery. They can help reduce dehydration along with slowing down how quickly the body runs out of its carbohydrate stores. Electrolytes, or minerals that have an electrical charge, are essential for your body’s normal operation.

The main electrolytes found in sports drinks are sodium and potassium. There have been many studies on the effects on exercise performance, with much of this research being conducted on athletes. Note, many of these studies have been funded by the sports drink industry though.

The Issues of Sports Drinks

There are many benefits of sports drinks, yet there are a decent number of issues.  Many of the popular brands have artificial colors that are derived from coal tar and petroleum. Artificial colors are used in foods to make it look more attractive. There is absolutely no nutritional benefit of food dyes. Many studies on dyes have shown allergies and possible hyperactivity in children, while some dyes may contain cancer-causing contaminants.

When it comes to helping clients with weight loss, many personal trainers look at simple ways to cut out unnecessary calories and liquid calories are usually the easiest to ingest and easiest to take out of one’s diet. If you aren’t exercising over an hour at high intensity there is a good chance you don’t need these extra calories and sugar.

Then there is the damage done to teeth as a 2006 study showed that energy drinks and sports drinks, like Red Bull and Gatorade, eroded the enamel more than soda or fruit drinks. For most people, including children and adolescents, the extra sugar, sodium, and calories found in sports drinks are not needed.

Lastly, the amount of sugar in 20 fluid ounces of Gatorade and Powerade had more than the recommended daily amount of sugar in one bottle. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the maximum amount of added sugars you should eat in a day are less than 37.5 grams for men and less than 25 grams for women. As a reference, both the Gatorade and Powerade had more sugar than a Kit Kat bar, 2 Reese’s cups, or Snickers. Even with sugar recommendations, the less sugar consumed the better, because we don’t need added sugar to survive.

When to Drink and When Not to Drink

When it comes to the need for sports drinks, one should ask several questions. First, how long is the duration of the exercise? Then, is it continuous exercise or are there breaks? What time of day and what environment will the activity take place in? These questions all revolve around the big question of how much sweat one will produce and lose.

Sports drinks can benefit most athletes who engage in long training sessions over an hour, yet they’re most likely unnecessary for the typical gym attendee as often there is rest between sets and weight training does not reduce your body’s carbohydrate stores as much as endurance exercise does.

Sports drinks can bring on unnecessary weight. Little research has been done on sports drinks showing benefits for short-duration exercise. Also, if you are doing exercise for the weight loss benefit in a half-hour of cardio, a single bottle of sports drinks will give you all the calories you just worked off. If in doubt for most exercise stick with water to hydrate and save the sports drinks for your next marathon or hour-long extended cardio session.

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