Sweat is one of those aspects of exercise, along with exhaustion and muscle soreness, that we just learn to live with, as much as we may dislike it. Some people, though, learn to embrace sweat.
For these exercisers, sweat is a sign that they’re doing something right, that they’re releasing toxins and burning off all that fat. A lot of us may feel that we haven’t worked out hard enough if we don’t emerge from the gym dripping in sweat.
But is perspiration really an accurate measure of workout intensity? Let’s examine what purpose sweat plays and what factors affect how much we sweat to decide that answer for ourselves.
Purpose of Sweat
There are several methods your body uses to maintain a healthy internal temperature, with sweat being the primary tool.
When your body’s temperature rises, whether from external heat, exercise or a combination of the two, the hypothalamus sends an activation signal to the sweat glands that are spread throughout your skin. These glands produce the fluid we call sweat, which absorbs the heat and rests on the surface of the skin. Once the sweat evaporates, it cools the body.
Even when you aren’t exercising, your muscles are working constantly, and when muscles work, they produce heat. This heat, logically, increases when we exercise and demand more from our muscles. But more than exertion controls how much we sweat. Gender, age and fitness level all contribute to our sweat patterns, and the environment in which we are exercising plays one of the most powerful roles.
Men tend to sweat more than women and women seem to start to sweat at higher temperatures than men do. Statistically, as people age they seem to sweat less but this could be because of declining fitness levels. The more trained your body is, the fitter you are, the more efficiently it will process heat and you will sweat less.
When the air around you is cooler than your body, you radiate heat through your skin into the air. Conduction is the direct transfer of heat from contact, like when you swim in cold water. Convection is a reaction to cold air passing over your skin. Evaporation, from sweat, is perfectly suited for when the air around you is hotter than your internal temperature.
Confusion arises, though, when that hot air is also humid. In that case, sweat can’t evaporate and will just collect on the skin until it starts to drip, making it look like you’re sweating excessively.
If you are dripping with sweat, it’s a signal that your body isn’t cooling down effectively, and that you could be in danger of overheating. To help sweat serve its purpose properly, avoid exercising in extreme heat and humidity.
Certain forms of exercise, such as Bikram yoga, are specifically performed in hot, humid environments, though. If you partake in these forms of exercise, where the point is to work up an intense sweat, make sure to stay hydrated with electrolyte-enriched drinks.
Be careful to stay properly hydrated no matter what kind of exercise you’re doing. The typical recommendations for hydration are one to two cups of water two hours before exercising, a half cup to a cup during and two and a half cups in the half hour following exercise. Your individual hydration needs will be different, so listen to your body and drink when you’re thirsty.
Whew! Wipe your brow. So although sweat isn’t necessarily an accurate measurement of your workout’s intensity, it does play an important role in keeping your body healthy. Just don’t forget your sweat towel.