Drinking too much water when exercising could pose serious health risks

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A new statement has been released that urges people to "drink when thirsty" when performing physical activities

Staying hydrated is essential when exercising, but just how much water should you be consuming when taking part in physical activities?

A new statement from this year’s International Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia Consensus Development Conference goes against what many believe to be the safest course of action. Researchers say that drinking too much when exercising can be extremely dangerous, and that you should only drink when thirsty.

Exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) occurs when a person drinks too much water when exercising. If your body cannot remove all of the extra fluids through sweat or urine, then your body’s sodium levels will begin to dilute. These sodium levels are extremely important because they help regulate many of your body’s internal systems.

Severe cases can be fatal

Symptoms of EAH include headache, vomiting, confusion, and seizures. These result from your brain swelling and your body being unable to handle the physical changes. There are often no signs or symptoms until your sodium levels are very low, and severe cases of EAH can even be fatal.  

This was the case with two high school football players who died of EAH last summer. Their deaths were a major force behind the Consensus Panel reconvening.

“Our major goal was to re-educate the public on the hazards of drinking beyond thirst during exercise,” said Dr. Tamara Hew-Butler, who is the lead author of the updated report.

The updated report states that people need to be careful about how much water they drink when exercising, especially in the summer months when the heat can drive people to drink even more.

“The safest individualized hydration strategy before, during and immediately following exercise is to drink palatable fluids when thirsty,” says the Consensus Panel.

Listen to our bodies

Much of this information may come as a shock to athletes who have always believed that drinking more was better. The Consensus Panel stresses that proper hydration will not only prevent EAH, but will allow athletes to perform optimally.

The authors also urge healthcare professionals to treat each person with EAH by the severity of their symptoms. Everyone’s sodium levels are different, so measuring them will not always provide accurate information.

Dr. Hew-Butler hopes that the new statement will help athletes, coaches, and even frequent exercisers be safer when performing physical activities.

“Every single EAH death is tragic and preventable, if we just listen to our bodies and let go of the pervasive advice that if a little is good, than more must be better,” she said.

The full list of recommendations has been published in the June issue of the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.

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