What You Need to Know About Exercise and Dehydration
It is so hot today that I cannot brain. On several occasions in the past two days, I have caught myself finishing sentences incorrectly or finishing them early, forgetting whole halves of my thought.
It is so hot that I booted my family from the house because they kept wanting to sit close to me, and it’s too hot for all that. Toddler Sprout had the audacity to lay across my lap, and I literally and figuratively lost my cool. I didn’t even let Mini-me get dressed all the way. She was hopping out the front door still trying to put her socks on.
It is so hot that, when my family left the house, I immediately put the chain on the door, stripped down to my socks, and pointed my industrial-strength fan directly—
I, uh, I think you get it.
What I don’t think most people get is that, in temperatures as hot as this, dehydration is so easy to accidentally stumble upon, and you have to be absolutely vigilant about staving it off… especially if you have a regular exercise routine.
For those of us who exercise inside an air conditioned facility, we sometimes take the temperatures for granted. It’s just below room temperature where we are, provided we’re not in a makeshift sweatbox, but not always. In the typical spin class, the instructor manipulates the room temperatures, choosing when to turn the fans down (thereby increasing the heat) and up (thereby making it easier to relax.) In your usual hot yoga class, the heat is on hell.
I mean, let’s be real. The temperature is on WTF degrees.
It’s supposed to encourage you to sweat beyond what you otherwise might in a yoga class, which is fine, I guess, but when the heat is already oppressive outside and the humidity is on “who gon’ check me, boo,” you have to be careful.
Here are some of [what I consider to be] the most important bits of info you need to help make sure the heat doesn’t catch you slippin’:
1) Water is the foundation of almost every bodily function you enjoy. Your water intake affects everything from your ability to breastfeed to menstruation to the viscosity of vaginal fluid (and, by extension, your ability to enjoy sex and fertility), everything from hair growth and scalp care to skin care.
All that detoxing you people are obsessed with starts and ends with water. Water helps flush your intestines and your kidneys, helping you pee and, well, poop.
This means dehydration can make you constipated, can cause your period to be late, and can result in your skin looking dry, and that’s just… not okay.
2) When you work out—especially you weight lifting, strength training bosses—your muscles swell and retain water, as a necessary part of the muscle recovery and regeneration process. This is a huge reason why people tend to “gain weight” at the start of a serious workout regimen—the weight increase you’re seeing on the scale is largely attributable to water weight.
This is also why you should just nod your head and say “You’re absolutely right, Erika” when I say you need to rely less on the scale because it’s woefully inaccurate.
The presence of water helps transport necessary nutrients to the muscle fibers that need it most, and flush the byproducts of the breakdown process that starts the rebuild. Without this, you can experience extended periods of intense muscle soreness and, to your detriment, potential for injury.
This makes water consumption extremely important—your muscles are going to be fighting for first dibs on whatever water you’ve got coming in, so you’ll likely want to drink more than you might otherwise think necessary.
3) Dehydration disguises itself as a lot of individual symptoms we naturally attribute to other things, but when those symptoms start happening in concert with each other? As a wise prophet once said, “You in danger, girl.”
Even when you think you’re being responsible with your water intake, it can sneak up on you. When the heat cranks up, you are constantly sweating—just in lower levels than you’re used to—which means you’re going to need much more than you expect.
Dehydration often feels like a sharp headache, because extreme losses of bodily fluid can cause the brain to shrink and pull away from the skull, which is the source of that pain. It’s not enough to take acetaminophen or something for it, because even though you’re going to wind up taking a little water to swallow the pill, you’re also going to wind up completely masking the seriousness of the pain.
Often, when pain happens in your body, it’s a signal that something is wrong. And, don’t get me wrong—I understand that, in the moment, you sometimes need to just get through this class/this meeting/this whatever before you can deal with the problem so you take a pain pill to get you through, but your handling of the problem cannot stop there. Make sure you guzzle some water, and put your head down for a while so you can return to normal.
You also experience dryness in places you didn’t expect, because your body prioritizes keeping your brain cool above all else. Your eyes, your mouth, your scalp, all places where dryness can occur because the fluids necessary for their support come from your water intake. The same with the pain pills applies, here—you might use moisturizers and eye droppers to mitigate the consequences, but you still need to get it together on the consumption end.
Dizziness is also another frequent symptom of dehydration. Remember, years back, when Oprah told people “sometimes you’re not hungry, you’re really just thirsty?” That’s dehydration. Dehydration often reads like “I’m just hungry,” as opposed to “I’m dizzy because I can’t keep my body cool, and the increase in my internal body temperature is making my brain do things that make everything fuzzy and uncomfortable.” Food can stave off the risk of dehydration, but often the food that’s going to do that is uncooked food. Fruit is best at this, since most non-starchy fruits (think bananas) are mostly water. Remember watermelon? Of course you do.
That light-headedness is a serious red flag. Consider this: sweat is your body’s primary method of keeping you cool in the heat. Your skin begins to sweat, the sweat reacts to the wind on the outside of your body, and you then are able to cool down. Heat without sweat means…more heat. It causes your internal temperature to rise. Lightheadedness means your internal temperature is affecting your brain, and can cause it to ‘overheat,’ which likely causes you to faint.
(If it ever gets this bad for you, grab a towel, your shirt, whatever, and drench it in cold water, and turn it into a cold compress, putting it directly on your forehead and keeping it there until the lightheadedness passes. Yes, it’s that deep. I’d rather you be shirtless and safe than clothed on the way to the ground.)
4) It doesn’t have to go that far, though. You can tell dehydration is coming by looking in the toilet after you pee. Yes, yes, I know, but you should be looking, anyway. And, yes, this—combined with the absence of the other issues previously mentioned—is the most reliable way to determine how hydrated you are. You’ve got to keep tabs on what’s happening in your body, and a look in the toilet is a good start. If your urine, in the toilet bowl, is looking taxicab yellow or anything darker than that, you’re not drinking enough.
The color of urine comes from the hard work your kidneys do to ensure it’s helping naturally detox your body. When that color is more like apple juice than lemonade in color, it basically means your water intake isn’t enough to flush out the old stuff. Check your pee, make sure it’s more like lemonade in color. If it’s darker than that, immediately go drink a couple glasses of water.
5) We complicate ‘self-care’ and make it a slogan for buying things we don’t need. Self-care isn’t the obnoxiously priced sneakers I just bought—that was just my obsessive sneaker purchasing disorder—self-care is doing things like drinking my water, even when I’m not thirsty, to stay on top of my health and preemptively avoid all the consequences of such. Self-care has to be health care, and preventative care, at that. Drink your water, even when you don’t want to, especially when you don’t want to do so.
As I always say, your body will absolutely thank you for it!