While dancers generally don’t practice outside all summer long like other athletes, they are still at risk for dehydration. The body works very hard to keep everything functioning well and adapts to allow for changes in activity levels. However, one important requirement to running on all cylinders is maintaining fluid balance. Fluids are necessary for all normal organ function and to offset the water lost when we speak, sing, and breathe and during exercise via sweating.
How do sweating and dehydration affect one another?
During movement, the muscles generate heat, and the body must be able to dissipate 70-90% of that heat through sweating. As sweat evaporates, heat is pulled from the body, but sweating results in a loss of fluid. This happens through a series of events the body has orchestrated to allow us to function in different climates and under different circumstances. It really is quite amazing!
To supply liquid for sweating, the body pulls it from the blood supply. This decreases the pressure in the blood vessels and makes filling of the heart less effective. In order to keep up, the heart pumps faster to circulate the same amount of blood in the presence of less pressure. Because the blood carries oxygen to the muscles used for dancing, decreased blood volume results in decreased muscular endurance and less time to reach fatigue.
When dehydrated, the blood volume is low and because the body prioritizes the use of fluids, the sweating mechanism stops working correctly. As a result, the body holds onto heat produced by exercise. This increases the core temperature, which the brain perceives as a fever. This perceived fever, combined with the increased work of the heart and decreased delivery of oxygen to the muscles, results in a higher rate of perceived exertion. In other words, the same intensity of exercise feels much harder.
In addition to losing fluids, sweating results in the loss of electrolytes – sodium and chloride in particular. And just like fluids, those electrolytes need to be replaced. A lack of sodium can result in muscle cramping and difficulty maintaining hydration status. An athlete should have more sodium in their diet than a sedentary person to account for loss during sweating.
It is important to note, drinking water after exercise will dilute the body even more, making the effect of sodium loss worse with decreased thirst and assumption of the body being hydrated even though it is not. This is why using urine color as an indication of hydration status (diluted lemonade = hydrated, apple juice = dehydrated) may not always be accurate. In this case, urine will often appear diluted and clear before a person is fully rehydrated after exercise.
So, how much – and what – should dancers be drinking to stay hydrated?
Daily fluid recommendations for children and adolescents (without consideration for exercise) are 72-80 fl oz for ages 9-13 and 80-112 fl oz for ages 14-18. However, as discussed earlier, athletes need more fluids to account for sweating, which is influenced by: intensity and duration of training, environmental conditions (heat/humidity), and clothing.
In preparation for exercise, drinking 16 fl oz 30 minutes prior is helpful. During activity, fluid recommendations are 3-5 fl oz every 20 minutes for ages 9-12 and 9-13 fl oz every 15 minutes for older athletes.
For activities of low intensity and less than 1 hour in duration, water is usually sufficient to maintain adequate hydration. If activity intensity is moderate-extreme, lasts > 1 hour, or occurs in an environment that lends itself to considerable sweating, a sports drink can be helpful to replenish fluids and electrolytes. These drinks also provide fuel in the form of carbohydrates – which are necessary during and after prolonged physical activity. Sometimes dancers and parents are concerned about the sugar and salt in sports drinks – but sugar and salt are exactly what needs replenished. When used appropriately, sports drinks are relatively safe but still not appropriate for everyone. Please ask your physician before using this to supplement your activity.
**All of these recommendations are starting points and should be individualized for each dancer. Fluid intake recommendations will also likely change day to day for the same dancer depending on a variety of factors.
If you have questions about your dancer’s hydration status, or your own, and would like personalized recommendations, reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will connect you to a dietician who can provide that guidance.