Sweat and exercise: why we should stop worrying about how much we’re sweating

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Think you’re sweating too much or too little while you train?. A doctor explains why it probably doesn’t matter… 

This morning, as I finished up my workout, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. With scraped back hair, leggings and a crop top on, I definitely looked like someone who was heading to the gym. But if you stole a quick glance my way you might think my workout had only just begun. 

Yes, I was a bit red, was breathing noticeably heavier than normal, and (TMI incoming) I did smell like I had been in the gym. But my face, neck and clothes were all pretty dry. 

In a conversation with Stylist’s executive digital editor Fliss Thistlethwaite, I told her that sometimes my workouts don’t end with me dripping my own bodily fluids over the gym floor. She told me she was a sweater, and that I must simply be more fit than she. But here’s the thing: I often feel guilty for not looking like a drowned rat when I walk out of the gym, as though I haven’t trained hard enough

“I’m a red in the face, sweaty upper lip kinda girl,” Fliss said to me. “I used to be mortified by sweat, wearing vests so I didn’t get telltale damp armpits in the gym. Now I don’t care who sees my sweaty pits or when I have to use the edge of my T-shirt to wipe away the beads on my upper lip.”

While I’d like to think that we have largely dismissed the idea that women don’t, or shouldn’t, sweat, it is interesting is that sweating is still a loaded bodily action – especially from women. So, I set out to find out what sweat really means for us and our workouts. 

Why do we sweat?

First, we need to understand what sweat actually is. “The body functions best within an optimal temperature range, and sweating is the body’s way of maintaining that,” explains Dr Folusha Oluwajana, sport and exercise expert and personal trainer. “Our sweat glands are stimulated when our internal or external temperature increases. During exercise we generate heat, which increases our body temperature. We sweat to cool ourselves down so that we can exercise for longer.” 

So, of course, training in 30°C sunshine will bring on more sweat, whereas working out in an air-conditioned gym will be less sweaty. But why are some people able to complete an entire training session without breaking a sweat, while others are damp from their warm up? 

“A large part of that is genetics. What’s normal for one person it’s different for another,” says Dr Oluwajana. She also explains that our body size and muscle mass can also impact sweat quantity, as more mass will generate more energy and heat. Outside of the gym, hormonal conditions, spicy foods, caffeine and alcohol can increase how much we perspire, too. “Something more commonly experienced by everyone is that anxiety, excitement and stress can induce sweating, too.” 

Sweat during workout
Creatine “rapidly replenishes energy for our muscle cells during high intensity exercise”

Is sweating a sign of a good workout?

The answer is both yes and no. While exercise should increase your body temperature and make you sweat, it’s not a very reliable measure, says Dr Oluwajana, “particularly as your environment is going to have a huge impact on how much you sweat.” 

It also depends what you actually want from your workouts, too. For example, my training session this morning was a strength focused upper body day. When I ask Dr Oluwajana if it matters that I wasn’t getting sweaty during that, she explained that while “lifting heavy weights does require energy, strength and muscular contraction, it might not generate as much heat because you’re not burning huge amounts of energy to generate the force it takes to get the weight off the floor.” 

That doesn’t mean it was bad, she says. It simply means that I had focused my training around something other than raising my internal body temperature – building muscle. Similarly, if the goal of your workout is to get more flexible, sweat is probably not something you should focus on. 

“We should all be doing exercise that raises our heart rate and gets us feeling warm. But rather than looking at how much you sweat, it’s probably best to look at things like your heart rate and breathing rate, because that is more objective measure of intensity,” adds Dr Oluwajana. So, rather than labelling your workouts good and bad for the way they appear on the outside, consider whether they are helping you reach your goals and improve your fitness levels. 

How much sweat is normal? 

There is no real way to determine this, says Dr Oluwajana. It’s all dependent on you, but if you find how much or how little you sweat is affecting yourself going about your daily business (for example, needing to change clothes multiple times a day) or you are feeling self-conscious about it, it’s best to see a doctor. 

For Fliss, accepting her sweat is about being practical: “Does it impact my work out? Yes, but only in that I know I need to carry liquid chalk for grip if I’m lifting heavy weights, and that if I sit down to stretch I’ll definitely leave a nice Fliss-print on the floor when I stand up (which, yes, I laugh at before dutifully wiping down). Getting sweaty in the gym is part and parcel of my work out, so I’ve had to learn to embrace it.”

For myself, it’s simply about understanding that I might want to add some more high-intensity movements into my training to really get my body temperature firing. As someone who does find sweat quite motivating, and likes the feeling of being defeated at the end of a workout, a few rounds on the ski-erg or throwing in some burpees is an easy enough way to do so. But, equally, I’m more than happy to leave the gym with my legs like jelly from heavy squats, but a body dry enough that no one would know. 

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