When it comes to health and fitness, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of basic steps like a healthy diet, a regular exercise routine and sufficient hours of sleep. Hydration – drinking enough water throughout the day – is another example of an easy step that some people neglect.
Getting the right amount of water your body needs is important for muscle gain, weight loss and overall health and fitness. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the principles of hydration, how to tell if you aren’t getting enough water, and the effects of dehydration on your body’s muscle composition.
Water is a fundamental element of the human body – roughly 60% of our weight is water. While you can consume water that replenishes your fluid level from other beverages, many of them are packed with less-than-desirable ingredients.
Some of the reasons you need to ensure a sufficient water intake include:
Helping with the process of digesting food
Delivering nutrients to cells throughout the body
Flushing toxins from organs through the bladder
However, as we’ll address in the next section, there’s no universal hard-and-fast rule for how much water you should consume. It depends on factors including your age, where you live and your level of physical activity.
You’ve probably heard a variety of different recommendations for how much water to drink based on fluid ounces or cups. But the specific amount of water you should try to drink every day depends on several factors.
First, consider the climate. People living in extremely hot and dry areas of the world – like the southwestern United States, for example – may need to drink extra water, especially in the hot months of summer. However, other research has indicated that hydration can also be negatively impacted by extremely cold temperatures. Consider how your climate may affect your fluid intake throughout the year.
Another big consideration to make when planning for adequate hydration is your activity level throughout the day. If you are going to be engaging in physical work outside, going for a hike or hitting the gym, you’ll want to add some extra fluid to your hydration plan. The University of Colorado’s Sports Medicine department advises to aim for one additional cup of water for every 15 to 20 minutes of exercise, especially outside in a hot climate.
Generally speaking, average people will do well with a baseline goal of drinking eight 8-oz glasses of water or some other type of fluid without caffeine or alcohol, for a total of 64 ounces of water per day. From there, you should increase the amount of water you drink based on your activity level and environment.
It’s not always easy to tell right away that your body is feeling dehydrated. Some believe they can use thirst as a guideline, simply by drinking whenever they are feeling thirsty. But thirst is not always an accurate indicator of hydration. Some people don’t feel thirst right away or at all, even though their body may already be lacking fluids.
If thirst isn’t a great indicator, what is? Here are a few common symptoms of dehydration:
Heat cramps are particularly common for athletes competing in outdoor sports, or those who work outside in hot conditions. Without the right amount of water, your body is much more susceptible to muscle cramps. Cramping can also be an early sign of heat exhaustion, a serious condition that involves sweating and an elevated heart rate. Heat exhaustion is the precursor to heat stroke, which can be fatal in the most serious conditions.
Dark-colored urine. According to experts, one of the most reliable ways to tell if you are dehydrated is to check the color of your urine. If it is a dark golden color, it’s a sign that you’re dehydrated. With proper hydration you should see a pale yellow color after urination.
Fatigue and/or confusion, especially when attempting tasks that require concentration, are also both common indicators that you need to consume more water. Medical research indicates that dehydration of as little as 2% can cause a drop in the performance of “tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills, as well as assessment of the subjective state.”
Dry mouth and tongue are also common signs that you are dehydrated and need to consume more water.
These are all common physical signals that you are dehydrated. But there is another side to dehydration that you won’t be able to observe as easily: its impact on your body’s muscles.
Data indicates that the effects of dehydration become more severe as we age. Sufficient water intake is important for almost all bodily functions, including the retention and growth of muscle tissue. Getting enough water is important to maintain healthy cells that can grow – research suggests that dehydrated cells may be associated with catabolic signals in the body, which are associated with the loss of cell mass.
Additionally, if you are attempting to build or retain muscle, it’s likely that you are adhering to a consistent workout routine that involves multiple weight lifting sessions each week. Dehydration will not only limit your muscle growth potential in the long run, in the short term it can prevent you from performing your best in the gym.
Understanding the risk factors involved with dehydration is only the first step. You've got to take active steps to hydrate yourself properly. Remember that plain water isn't your only option for hydrating yourself after time outside or a high intensity workout at the gym. You can also look into sports drinks that are made with electrolytes, carbohydrates and other supplements.
To help you remember to drink water throughout the day, it's suggested you bring a water bottle with you throughout the day or keep one at your desk. Another trick for drinking water is to fill up a cup or water bottle and then immediately drink a quarter or half of what you just poured. You can then refill the container and sip the rest of the water more slowly. Other water bottles come with notches printed on them that indicate fluid ounce levels, sometimes corresponding with a time of day. This system can help you develop a routine around water consumption.
Finally, don't forget that you can consume foods that have a high water content to help with hydration. Vegetables like spinach and other leafy greens can be especially valuable since they add potassium, which people often lose while sweating during exercise or time spent outside in the heat. Cucumbers, watermelon, strawberries, and celery are other examples of vegetables that have a lot of water in them – often 90% or more.
Drinking enough water is an important part of general wellness for your body. Sufficient hydration is key for important bodily functions like regulating blood pressure, controlling body weight, and helping you build and maintain muscle mass. If you are trying to add muscle to your frame or simply maintain the muscle mass you have already developed, make sure to be consuming enough water or fluids to keep you hydrated. Shoot for eight glasses a day and supplement your diet with water-rich foods to help you feel satiated and improve both mental and physical performance in your daily life.