Three factors to consider about sports drinks

Have you taken a trip down your grocery store's beverage aisle lately? If you have, you can certainly agree: It's like a kaleidoscope of sugar.

And if you're trying your best to avoid it, but still want something more than water, you've surely turned to green tea, milk and yes, the occasional glass of wine. But have you been tempted yet by the myriad sports drinks available?

To help better understand whether there's value in sports drinks, we turned to Christopher Finlay, MD, primary care physician, HonorHealth Medical Group - McDowell Moutain Ranch, who also happens to be an ironman triathlete and frequent marathon runner, to get the skinny on sports drinks.

It turns out that, for the right person, sports drinks can be beneficial. For some, they may even be necessary. Figuring out if they're right for you, however, requires a little soul searching and honesty about your exercise habits and associated post-workout needs. Otherwise, Dr. Finlay says you may as well be drinking a soda with all the excess calories, sugar and carbohydrates that are loaded into a typical sports drink.

The whole point of a sports drink is to rehydrate and refuel, replacing the two main sources of electrolytes that are lost during exertion: sodium and potassium.

According to Dr. Finlay, all sports drinks have three main components: water, salt and energy.

Each has its own combination of ingredients to deliver its signature boost. Some use caffeine, but most don't. Generally speaking, sugar is the key ingredient.

Knowing what's in sports drinks is just the beginning. Next comes figuring out if your exercise demands warrant one.

Dr. Finlay suggests factoring in the following when deciding if you should add a sports drink to your workout routine:

1. Activity level and duration

  • Moderate to high-intensity workouts such as running, biking or hiking that exceed 45 minutes can deplete sodium and potassium levels; therefore, necessitating the use of sports drinks. Drinking water only hydrates the body, which does nothing to replace lost sodium and potassium.

2. Environment

  • Arizona offers a rather unique climate that can affect even expert sports enthusiasts who are unfamiliar with the effects of our "dry heat." Since sweat tends to evaporate quickly in these arid conditions, people often lose sight of just how much water – and salt – they're losing. Sports drinks can be vital under the intense Arizona sun.

3. Sweat factor

  • In addition to losing excess water, sweating depletes the body's electrolytes. Those who sweat a lot and get crystal-like salt lines generally reap the biggest benefits from sports drinks since replenishing sodium is critical.

Lower-intensity workouts that span several hours under the sun or during the intense heat of the summer, such as a long, easy hike or baseball tournament, can also result in a loss of water and salt. In these instances, a sports drink can be beneficial to ensure adequate hydration and electrolyte balance.

Dr. Finlay says blood is salt water, almost like the ocean. When we sweat and lose salt water, our blood becomes diluted. Merely hydrating with water does little to replace lost electrolytes. Too little sodium in the blood can lead to a condition known as hyponatremia.

At the end of the day, Dr. Finlay says to remember that sports drinks pack a hefty calorie punch. If your workout doesn't pass the recommended duration (45 minutes or longer) and intensity (moderate to high) thresholds, you won't get any benefit. You will, however, get much more than your fair share of sugar and carbohydrates.

Remember, to take marketed messages about sports drinks with a grain of salt. Calling something healthy doesn't necessarily mean it is.

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