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Is Sweat a Good Indicator of Fitness?

By Aarti Patel Email By Aarti Patel
July 2014
Is Sweat a Good Indicator of Fitness?

If you climb a flight of stairs really fast and break out in a sweat, some might consider you unfit. Yet others believe the opposite: your sweating is an indication of physical fitness.

While a fitter person generally does sweat more quickly as their body becomes more efficient at regulating temperature, there are several other factors that can affect individual sweating, including genes, medical conditions involving the thyroid, medications, menopause, and obesity. Even the climate your body is used to and the temperature in which you are exercising can affect how much you sweat.

Although most people gauge the intensity of their workouts by how much they sweat, according to the National Institutes of Health, “sweating is the release of a salty liquid from the body’s sweat glands. [It] is an essential function that helps the body stay cool. How much you sweat depends on how many sweat glands you have. [We’re] born with about two to four million sweat glands. . . [which] start to become fully active during puberty. Women actually have more sweat glands then men—men’s glands are just more active.” The two types of sweat glands are the eccrine and apocrine glands. The eccrine glands, which are the most numerous, are found all over the body, mainly on the soles of feet, palms, and the forehead. Apocrine glands, which typically end in hair follicles and become active during puberty, are confined to the armpits, genitals, and scalp.

We might not notice it, but sweating is an activity which is performed by our bodies all day long, even in cold weather. Being in hot weather, exercising, eating spicy/hot food, and being nervous all increase our internal body temperature, which in turn causes us to sweat, thus allowing the body to cool down. Excess heat is removed from the body when sweat evaporates from the skin. You must have noticed that when exercising during hot humid days you are more uncomfortable than on a hot dry day. This is because sweat does not evaporate easily in humid weather, as the air already has enough water vapor in it. As a result, sweat remains on the skin and the body does not cool down efficiently, unlike during hot dry days when sweat quickly evaporates from the skin. In both situations, drinking enough fluids is a must as dehydration can occur very quickly.

While participating actively in an aerobics class will most likely cause you to sweat, the thought of being in an uncomfortable situation might also make your palms damp and challenge your deodorant. Anxiety and nervousness trigger an increase in sympathetic nerve activity, along with an increase in epinephrine secretion from the adrenal gland, which acts on sweat glands mainly on the palms and armpits, producing sweat. Other situations besides exercising, such as making a speech or interviewing for a job, also create a similar ‘fight or flight’ response, with an increase in heart rate as the body perceives imminent danger. Sweat glands are then activated as the body prepares to cool itself down.

Even though sweating is considered embarrassing by some, it is a normal and vital bodily function. However, sweating alone is not a good indicator of how hard you are exercising as one person may work out at a moderate intensity and sweat profusely, while someone else might work out at a higher intensity and barely break a sweat. It is also not a good indicator of your fitness level as in some cases excessive sweating or not sweating at all could indicate an underlying medical problem. Remember to gauge your workouts not by how much you sweat but by calories burned and the intensity.


[Aarti Patel serves as the columnist for Fitness Lifestyle. She has a B.Sc. in Health Information Administration and is certified by the American Council on Exercise as a Personal and Group Fitness Instructor, and Lifestyle and Weight Management Coach. She can be reached at (404)-376-5655; info@aartifitness.com. This column rotates monthly along with the Ask the Doctor column by Gulshan Harjee, M.D.]

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