The Gist of It
- According to the scientific community, sports drinks are only necessary if you are exercising at high intensity for 90 minutes or longer.
- Sports drinks come with quite an amount of sugar and calories, and may defeat the purpose of your workout if you aren’t careful.
- For the average person working out, water is enough for good hydration.
Sports drinks are super popular both with athletes and gym rats. But are they as effective as we think they are at rehydrating us?
To get to the answer, we must first understand what sports drinks are, and how they work in our body.
When you exercise, you sweat, and through that you lose fluids and electrolytes like sodium and chloride (this is why your sweat tastes salty).
If you continue exercising without replenishing the lost fluids, you’ll begin to feel cramps, fatigue and dizziness, which is your body telling you that you’re dehydrated.
Sports drinks are specifically formulated to give your body what it needs after a long workout — hydration, energy (in the form of sugar), and electrolytes.
It all sounds good on paper, but what does science say?
In 2012, researchers from the Oxford University examined 431 performance enhancing claims in 104 sports adverts including sports drinks, protein shakes and trainers. GlaxoSmithKline — the makers of Lucozade Sport — provided hundreds of studies. From 176 studies, only three (2.7%) were judged by the team to be of high quality and at low risk of bias. They say that the absence of high quality evidence is “worrying” and called for better research in this area .
More recently, in September 2014, an article published in the British Medical Journal by Australian researchers urged sporting events to ditch nutritional supplement and sports drinks sponsorship, as they could mislead regular Joes like us to think that these products work well and are good for health — when there isn’t strong scientific evidence to support it .
“The Australian Institute of Sports has voiced concerns about this, while the American Dietetic Association, Dieticians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine have issued a joint statement, which among other things, questions the manufacturers’ claims for the effectiveness of these products.”
Why are they making such a fuss about sports drinks, which supposedly helps replenish us with lost electrolytes and give us energy to stride forth?
Do You Really Need to Replenish Lost Electrolytes?
Perhaps because we don’t really need to replenish these electrolytes, for one.
Your body loses water faster than it does electrolytes, so it may be unnecessary to replace these minerals in workouts that last less than an hour .
The studies done by manufacturers of these sports drinks uses subjects who are exercising at high intensity for long periods. For high intensity endurance athletes, sports drinks certainly play a good role .
But these studies proving the efficacy of sports drinks aren’t conducted on the average person who goes to the gym three times a week to run (and walk) on the treadmill for 40 minutes, hikes slowly up a hill, or walks most of a marathon — basically, someone like you and I.
And yet, the sports drinks industry in the US raked in US$5.5 billion in sales for the year ending April 2014. Who are the people buying these drinks? Regular people like you and I who have no real need for it.
Who Should Drink Sports Drinks
According to sports physiologist Dr. Greg Wells, sports drinks are great for keeping electrolyte levels well, re-hydrating you and giving you sugar that you need to exercise.
“But for the average person, in a gym, typical spin class, yoga class, going to lift some weights, you need water”.
Wells said that despite the easy availability of sports drinks, the only people they’ll really help are a small minority of athletes.
“In the scientific community, we generally don’t recommend sport drinks for anything less than 90 minutes, if you are exercising really intensely, if you are exercising in the heat, if you are exercising for a very long period of time,” Wells added .
While sports drinks do get you re-hydrated quicker than water will, it won’t affect you unless you are getting a really intense workout for a really long period of time. For all normal exercises, water works just fine to replenish and rehydrate.
Of course, there are exceptions. For example if you’re a salty sweater (where the sodium concentration in your sweat is higher than average) who sweats buckets, you will be losing more sodium than the average person, thus needing to replace more electrolytes.
And Then There’s the Calories
Water is a zero calorie drink. Sports drinks? Not so much. Many people look at me in disbelief when I point out that the bottle of Gatorade they’ve just chugged down has about as much sugar as a can of Coke, and comes armed with 200 calories . Which basically obliterates their entire 45-minute workout on the stationary bike.
How about local favourites like 100 Plus and Revive Isotonic? They both roll in at 34g of sugar and 135kcal per 500ml bottle. Not as innocent as you think, eh?
The problem isn’t that these sports drinks come with calories and sugar, because if you’re a top athlete working out many hours a day, you will need these calories and carbs to help fuel you.
The problem comes when regular people like you and I, believe that it’s our right to slurp up a cold fizzy sports drink when all we did was attend a hot yoga class. That’s not how it works.
And this perception that sports drinks are good for health is spreading to our children as well. Kids who really have no need for these sugar-laden drinks are often seen with the neon-coloured bottles, not just at sports events, but while out for a walk in the mall too. It’s fast becoming their go-to “healthy” drink.
“Children definitely don’t need sports drinks,” says Dr Claire McCarthy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School . Wells agrees, cautioning that we should be careful with giving our kids too much salt and sugar.
What to Drink Instead
Unless you are working out rigorously for more than 90 minutes (keyword being rigorously), water would serve you just fine. Just remember to drink up before, during, and after your workout. And of course, throughout the day. If plain water is not your thing, try dressing it up with slices of lemon, strawberries, mint, or even cucumber!
There are also plenty of food sources you can replace the lost electrolytes with after your workout. See table below:
[Get some fruit-infused water ideas here]
If you would still prefer sticking to sports drinks, you’ll need to pay heed to the nutritional label. Opt for those with minimal or zero sugar (and no artificial sugars), and if you’re intending to maintain or lose weight, count the calories.
[Learn how to check if you’re dehydrated]