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I have done many things for fitness. I have gotten up very early. I have sipped protein shakes with questionable contents. I have invested in overpriced elastic bands and high-fived strangers at the end of a class. But I draw the line at sweating profusely. I steer clear whenever possible.
For many people, working up a good sweat is an almost spiritual experience. They feel cleansed and revitalized by it, and they use their sweatiness as a barometer for how rigorous their workout was. But for me, sweat is best avoided — namely, because my hair is thick and becomes extremely heavy when wet. Plus, it takes forever to dry afterward. As such, my workouts of choice are usually Pilates, barre, and weights, with light cardio thrown in only occasionally. But sometimes I do wonder: Am I still working out if I’m not working up a sweat?
“Sweat is simply your body’s way of regulating your temperature,” says Celestine Atalie, a personal trainer certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and an instructor at fitness studio P.Volve. “A lot of people think sweat is the only gauge of exercise intensity, but it’s more about how much you contracted and released your muscles because that’s how the muscle gets stronger.”
In fact, according to Dr. Michael Fredericson, a sports-medicine physician at the Stanford University Medical Center, sweat isn’t even an indicator of calorie burning. “The amount you sweat is very individual. It’s not necessarily a reflection of how hard you’re working out. People often think, Oh, I sweated so much at the gym earlier, I must have burnt a lot of calories, but it’s more an indication of having been very warm.”
Obviously, sometimes you just sweat because you’re hot, not because you’re doing anything strenuous. Atalie points to the example of going outside on a warm day: “If you took a short walk or got on the subway, you’d likely be sweating a lot. But that’s simply your body’s natural cooling system doing its job, not that you were working out.”
Paradoxically, the more proficient you become at a certain activity, you may find you’re sweating less, even though you’re able to push yourself harder. “As you become stronger, your body becomes more efficient, and the more efficient it is, the less you may sweat,” says Atalie. For this reason, some athletes choose to train in high heat to improve their conditioning. “Over time, your body will adapt to the challenge,” she explains. “So you may start off finding one kind of exercise really sweaty, but that’s just because your body wasn’t used to that type of activation.”
So if not sweat, what should we be looking for in a workout? Dr. Fredericson says it’s far more important to watch your heart rate and not just while exercising. “As you achieve greater aerobic fitness, your resting heart rate is going to go down. If you have some kind of fitness tracker, you can check that every day in the morning before you get out of bed. Once you have an idea what your baseline is, you may notice it will go down a little bit as you get into better and better shape,” he explains.
Once you’ve established a good resting heart rate, the mark of a good workout — and good overall heart health — is to be able to increase your heart rate during exercise and then have it return to its resting rate quickly. “The quicker your heart rate goes back to normal is another indicator of improved fitness. We call this heart-rate variability,” Fredericson says.
Workouts like yoga, Pilates, and barre — which improve strength and mobility without necessarily getting your pulse up — also offer lots of health benefits. “Flexibility and mobility are so important, especially as we get older. If you lose mobility in your joints, especially in your hips and low back, even normal movement can become very difficult,” says Fredericson. Incorporating some kind of resistance training or weight-bearing exercise is also a good idea to protect bone density and strength.
Overall, though, getting your heart rate up is paramount. “It doesn’t have to be a really intense cardio session — even walking or gardening can count,” offers Fredericson. “Or you can break up your activity into ten-minute chunks if that’s easier.” He notes that the American College of Sports Medicine recommends you get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but that minimum goes down to 75 minutes a week if you do something high intensity, like HIIT. Notably, sweat does not factor into any of these requirements.
Are there any upsides to sweating, besides the fact that it cools you off? At least from a fitness perspective, not really. It’s true that sweating can go hand in hand with many beneficial things about exercise and that thermoregulation is a crucial part of recovery and endurance. All in all, the ability to sweat is essential for working out as well as for day-to-day life, but if you choose to avoid it when possible, that’s probably just fine too.