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Why Do I Sweat During Exercise?

Hate that gross, sticky feeling after a gym session? Don’t — it’s the body’s natural mechanics at work to stay cool and quenched.

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While sweating it out at the gym may not be ideal for finding a hot date, it is key to managing body temperature and staying hydrated. So rock the “I just got out of the shower” look and get sweaty!

Gonna’ Make You Sweat — Why It Matters

Before Snoop Dogg starts dripping, let’s get to the basics: Sweating is all about temperature control. When body temps rise (like, say, on a hot summer day or during an intense workout), the eccrine sweat glands kick into gear to keep our body temperature stable [1]. Once the body passes 98.6 degrees, the brain’s hypothalamus (a.k.a the body’s thermostat) goes off— and no, it can’t just be turned down. This triggers the glands to release a salty mixture of water, sodium chloride, and other electrolytes [1]. When sweat leaves the skin’s pores, it evaporates into the air, taking some heat with it.

So it makes sense that a particularly tough run or strenuous pick-up game ups the body’s temperature and the need to sweat it out [2]. But it’s not just body temperature that causes sweating. During exercise, heart rate and blood pressure increase, which in turn cause the body to pump out more sweat. Plus, repeated exercises, like lifting weights, can turn on sweat glands even without soaring body temps [3]. Even when blood pressure falls after time at the gym’s up, the body often keeps churning out sweat because the muscles stay stimulated [1] [4].

Blood, Sweat, and Tears — The Answer/Debate

While no one likes that sticky post-gym feeling, sweat is essential for a good workout. And while it’s been rumored that those who sweat like pigs aren’t as in shape as those who stay dry as a desert, some studies have found physically unfit women sweat less than their in-shape cohorts [5].

But it still looks like the phrase “men sweat, women glow” will never die: Even science suggests fit men sweat more than fit women [5]. One study found gals produced less sweat from each gland, even though both male and female athletes had the same number of sweat glands [5].

One thing everyone can agree on— it’s essential to drink lots of water before and after a workout. And research suggests even pro athletes may not be drinking enough to stay hydrated [6] [7] [8]. During exercise, the amount of sweat pouring out is often greater than the amount of fluids heading into the body, leading to dehydration. This messes with the body’s ability to regulate temperature and can hurt performance [9] [10] [11]. And If you’re not a huge fan of H2O, sports drinks can also help replenish the body’s fluids. Before reaching for the bucket of sugar-loaded sports drinks (Gatorade shower, anyone?) remember that the sports drink should contain moderate amounts of glucose and sodium. These nutrients can help the body speed up rehydration and supply carbs to working muscles for an extra dose of energy [12].

Photo by Marissa Angell

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Works Cited +

  1. Mechanisms and controllers of eccrine sweating in humans. Shibasaki, M., Craig G., Crandall, C.G. Department of Environmental and Life Sciences, Nara Women’s University Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Nara, Japan; Department of Internal Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, TX. Frontiers in Bioscience (Schol Edition). 2010 January 1; 2: 685–696.
  2. Temperature regulation during exercise.  Gleeson, M. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, England. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 1998 Jun;19 Suppl 2:S96-9.
  3. Control of skin circulation during exercise and heat stress. Roberts, M.F., Wenger, C.B. Medicine & Science in Sports. 1979 Spring;11(1):36-41
  4. Modulation of the thermoregulatory sweating response to mild hyperthermia during activation of the muscle metaboreflex in humans.  Kondo N, Tominaga H, Shibasaki M, Aoki K, Koga S, Nishiyasu T. Laboratory for Applied Human Physiology, Faculty of Human Development, Kobe University, Japan.  The Journal of Physiology. 1999 Mar 1;515 ( Pt 2):591-8.
  5. Evidence for metaboreceptor stimulation of sweating in normothermic and heat-stressed humans. Shibasaki M, Kondo N, Crandall CG. Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, Presbyterian Hospital of Dallas, Dallas, TX. The Journal of Physiology. 2001 Jul 15;534(Pt. 2):605-11.
  6. Sex differences in the effects of physical training on sweat gland responses during a graded exercise. Ichinose-Kuwahara, T., Inoue, Y., Iseki, Y., et al.. Laboratory for Human Performance Research, Osaka International University, Moriguchi, Osaka, Japan. Experimental Physiology. 2010 Oct;95(10):1026-32. Epub 2010 Aug 9.
  7. The sweating response of elite professional soccer players to training in the heat. Shirreffs, S.M., Aragon-Vargas, L.F., Chamorro, M., et al. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, Leicestershire UK. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2005 Mar;26(2):90-5.
  8. Hydration Status in Adolescent Judo Athletes Before and After Training in the Heat. Rivera-Brown, A.M., De Félix-Dávila, R.A. Center for Sports Health and Exercise Sciences at the Albergue Olímpico, Department of Physical Medicine, Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine, University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, San Juan, Puerto Rico. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2011 Aug 30.
  9. Influence of hydration status on thermoregulation and cycling hill climbing. Ebert TR, Martin DT, Bullock N, et al. Department of Physiology, Australian Institute of Sport, Canberra, Australia. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2007 Feb;39(2):323-9.
  10. Hydration effects on thermoregulation and performance in the heat. Sawka MN, Montain SJ, Latzka WA. Thermal & Mountain Medicine Division, US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, Natick, MA. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology Part A: Molecular Integrative Physiology. 2001 Apr;128(4):679-90.
  11. Sports drinks, exercise training, and competition. von Duvillard, S.P., Arciero, P.J., Tietjen-Smith, T., et al. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Health and Human Performance, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Commerce, Texas. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2008 Jul-Aug;7(4):202-8.
  12. Fluid and electrolyte intake and loss in elite soccer players during training. Maughan, R.J., Merson, S.J., Broad, N.P., et al. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University, Leicestershire, UK. International Journal of Sports Medicine and Exercise Metabolism, 2004 Jun;14(3):333-46.