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Why Young Athletes Shouldn’t Guzzle Sports Drinks

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Young athletes guzzle sports drinks on the fields and courts across America. From pee wee soccer to elite high school sports, the popularity and consumption of sports drinks is on the rise in children and teens, and it’s not limited to the athlete. Part of the reason is that more than a quarter (27%) of parents perceive sports drinks to be a healthy option for their little athletes.

What may surprise you to know is that most American children are not physically active enough to reap the benefits of a sports drink. Although practices may be scheduled for an hour or two, this isn’t a guarantee that your child will be active that long. One study of soccer, baseball and softball players aged 7 to 14 found that in an average 1 ½ hour practice, athletes were only active for about 45 minutes. This is less activity than what many parents believe their athletes are getting.

Additionally, research is starting to identify a risk for weight gain when kids consume sports drinks regularly. Allison Field, a Harvard researcher, found that young athletes gained about 3.5# per year (a 0.3 increase in the BMI index) when they consumed a bottle (12 ounces) of sports drink each day. She concluded that sports drinks may be worse than soda when it comes to kids’ health.

If you’ve gotten into the habit of offering a sports drink each time your child or teen heads off to practice or a game, you may want to rethink your drink.

Here are some more things to think about:

  • As mentioned, most American children and teens are not physically active for more than an hour at a time, which is the cut-off for whether they should drink a sports drink or not. Elite and high school athletes are, however, more likely to exercise for more than an hour and may benefit from using a sports drink during or after exercise.
  • Children and teens engaged in prolonged exercise (greater than one hour), in high temperatures and/or humidity, benefit from the use of small amounts of sports drinks (a small 12 ounce bottle) to prevent dehydration.  Examples of intense physical activity are: football training during the summer, marathon training and races, back-to-back competitive soccer and tennis matches, swimming, and long cycling races.
  • Consuming sports drinks may result in extra calories, sodium and sugar. Used inappropriately, sports drinks may contribute to excess weight gain and negatively influence a child’s health.
  • Sports drinks place children at higher risk for dental carries.
  • Sports drinks may displace and crowd out essential nutrients for growth and health.
  • Marketing and advertising efforts directed at children and teens entice them to purchase and consume sports drinks. Some common messages kids hear include: sports drinks are a healthy alternative to soda (they are not); they help improve athletic performance (they can help keep a young athlete hydrated during extensive exercise); they increase energy levels (not proven); and are a healthy thirst quencher (the salt content helps quench thirst).

In the presence of a balanced diet, drinking water before, during and after exercise may be enough to prevent dehydration, even with prolonged exercise. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that if children and teens are engaged in normal physical activity for three hours or less a day, plain water may be adequate.

So, if plain water can cover hydration needs without the potential negative side effects, doesn’t it make sense to rethink the sports drink?

Reference: Story, M. and Klein, L. Consumption of sports drinks by children and adolescents. A research review. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, June 2012.

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