Advantages and Disadvantages of Sports Drinks

Kids and adults alike often reach for a sports drink to rehydrate after exercising, even if their exercise session wasn't particularly long or difficult. In many cases, these drinks aren't necessary, because water is all you need unless you're participating in strenuous exercise for a long time. Drinking sports drinks regularly when they aren't necessary may have some disadvantages because of their high sugar and calorie content.

Three kinds of Powerade sports drinks. (Image: Andrew Burton/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Replacing Electrolytes

The main advantage of sports drinks over water is their electrolyte content. When you sweat, you lose electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, phosphate, calcium, magnesium and chlorine. If you sweat a lot during your exercise session, your electrolyte levels could become too low, potentially causing nausea, muscle cramps, dizziness and confusion. Replacing lost fluids with plain water doesn't replace electrolytes, but this isn't usually an issue when you exercise for only a short time, but it can become an issue when you exercise for more than an hour.

Replacing Lost Fluids

Sports drinks help replace lost fluids, which is particularly important for endurance athletes. People who don't like drinking plain water may find it easier to meet their increased fluid needs during exercise if they drink flavored beverages such as sports drinks. You need about 1 1/2 cups to 4 cups of liquid for every hour of exercise, depending on the intensity of the exercise and on how much you sweat.

Calorie and Sugar Content

The main disadvantage of most sports drinks is their high caloric content. These calories come from sugars, which usually make up 4 to 9 percent of the drink. These sugars can help give you greater endurance if you drink them during long exercise sessions. Don't drink beverages that contain a higher percentage of sugars to replace fluids, because the high sugar content will delay absorption of the liquid, according to the University of Illinois Extension. You can dilute these beverages with plain water to reduce their sugar concentration.

Selection and Alternatives

Most sports drinks contain 13 to 19 grams of carbohydrates in every 8 ounces. Look for a drink that has no more than 8 percent carbohydrates and its electrolytes are a mix of different sugars, and avoid those that contain only fructose -- which can upset your stomach, notes the University of Illinois Extension website. If you aren't exercising very strenuously or are only exercising for a short time, stick with water; or, if you want a flavored alternative, choose a low-calorie fitness water that contains fewer than 10 calories per 8 ounces. You can also use coconut water or low-fat milk to replace both fluids and electrolytes if you want an alternative to sports drinks for rehydration after you finish exercising.

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