By Susie Reiner, PhD, CSCS, EP-C
Hydration is crucial in maintaining overall health and well-being, but it is often overlooked. More than half of professional, collegiate, and high school athletes arrive for workouts dehydrated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults reported drinking an average of only 44 ounces of water per day over three years.
You’ll be filling up your water bottle sooner than you think after learning how your water intake impacts almost all aspects of your health. Continue reading to learn just how much water you need, and the strategies you can take to stay hydrated throughout your day.
Hydration for Health, Performance, and Cognition
The human body is approximately 55 to 65 percent water, making fluid intake essential for numerous body functions. The benefits of optimal hydration include maintaining your core temperature through thermoregulation, removing cellular waste through respiration, perspiration, and digestion, and reducing stress on your cardiovascular system. Dehydration decreases blood volume–the amount of blood circulating throughout your body–and to compensate, your heart rate and blood pressure go up.
Staying hydrated to maintain homeostasis in the body is particularly important during physical exertion. Exercise is a stressor all on its own, so if you add dehydration (not to mention a hot or cold environment), your body has to work in overdrive to maintain fluid balance, optimal performance, and safe bodily functions. Proper fluid intake before, during, and after a workout can enhance performance during the activity, protect your organ systems, and improve your recovery following a challenging session.
Optimal hydration is also essential for brain health and function. Even mild dehydration is associated with impaired cognition—mental processes required to perceive, process, and produce information—which is necessary to accomplish everyday tasks. Proper hydration can improve concentration, memory, and reaction time. Improved cognition means chances are you’re more nimble on your feet, reducing your risk of falls. An additional bonus: staying hydrated can improve your mood, so you think clearer and happier when you’ve had enough to drink.
Hydration for Rehabilitation and Joint Pain
Staying hydrated is especially important if you are recovering from an injury. Optimal hydration helps to reduce inflammation and swelling after an injury, brings increased blood flow and delivery of nutrients to the injured area, and aids in the removal of waste products. Alongside your standard rehabilitation program for soft-tissue injuries, keeping your water intake up can help you return to normal movement faster and, in some cases, expedite your overall recovery time.
You may also find joint pain is more prevalent when you are dehydrated. Up to 80 percent of joint cartilage consists of water, providing a cushion to prevent bones from coming in contact with one another. Synovial joints like your knees, hips, shoulders, or elbows have joint capsules filled with thick synovial fluid. When adequately hydrated, the gel-like liquid provides nutrients, shock absorption, and reduced friction, enabling smooth motion and joint mobility. Think of water as your body’s partner in the crucial stages of healing soft tissue injuries and the cushion that protects your joints from chronic pain and damage.
Water Intake Recommendations
You lose water constantly throughout your day. For your body to function properly, replenishing its water supply is essential—but how much water do you need? The most popular recommendation is to aim for eight cups of water a day. While easy to remember and a reasonable goal, you may need more water if you live an active lifestyle or live in hot, humid, or high-altitude environments.
The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups daily for men and about 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) of fluids for women. These recommendations cover fluids from water, other beverages, and food. About 20 percent of daily fluid intake usually comes from food, and the rest from drinks. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends avoiding high-caloric drinks with added sugars when choosing beverages.
5 Science-Backed Tips for Staying Hydrated
Your water consumption throughout the day will depend on your lifestyle, your preferences, and your body’s unique needs. Here are five general tips supported by research to help you increase your water intake:
- Keep a water bottle or glass of water nearby for easy access throughout the day, especially when you’re stressed or busy, so you don’t need to choose which task to prioritize.
- Drink water before, during, and after exercise, and consider including electrolytes or carbohydrates for long, high-intensity sessions.
- Add fruits and vegetables with a high water content to help contribute to your daily water intake.
- Notice when you feel thirsty and quench your thirst. Thirst sensations tend to decline with age, so if you don’t feel thirsty throughout the day, schedule when you’ll drink water.
- Check the color of your urine - if it is light yellow or clear, it's a sign that you are properly hydrated. You may need to drink more water if it's dark yellow or amber.
The Bottom Line: Hydration is essential for physical and mental performance and contributes to overall health, well-being, and rehabilitation. Monitor your fluid intake throughout the day and match your hydration to your lifestyle and environment. Adding another glass or two of water to your day will benefit your body and mind.