Sweat and exercise pretty much go hand in hand, except maybe when you head out for a short run on a frigid winter morning or do a low-intensity workout like gentle yoga, walking, or tai chi.
Some athletes love to sweat. They wear their soaked workout gear like a badge of honor, a marker of the hard work they did. Other people loathe getting sweaty when exercising and even find it to be a deterrent to getting their workout in. But, is sweating good for you?
Whether you fall in the camp of those that relish a good sweat or find sweating to be little more than a stinky nuisance or the body’s knee-jerk response to physical activity, there are actually several benefits of sweating.
In this guide, we will examine the benefits of sweating for your body and discuss why breaking a sweat is good for you to hopefully make that damp running shirt feel like a little more than just another piece of laundry.
In this article, we will cover:
- What Is Sweat?
- Why Do We Sweat During Exercise?
- 7 Benefits of Sweating
Let’s get started!
What Is Sweat?
Besides the moisture that makes your socks uncomfortable and the underarms of your top all damp, what exactly is sweat?
Sweat, also called perspiration, is an excretion composed predominantly of water with traces of ammonia, urea, salts, and sugar.
Sweat itself is virtually odorless; the odor people associate with sweating is actually a product of what the sweat mixes with, such as the bacteria living on the surface of your skin and the other hormonal secretions in the area of your sweat glands, such as the armpit and groin.
Why Do We Sweat During Exercise?
Researchers note that sweating is the normal physiological response to physical activity, and serves as a means of regulating the temperature of the body through evaporative cooling.
Essentially, when you exercise, the muscles generate heat through their contractions and metabolic processes. This leads to an increase in body temperature.
Thermoreceptors in the skin and around the body detect the temperature increase and signal the hypothalamus in the brain to stimulate the sweating response. This induces dilation of sweat glands, and sweat is excreted onto the skin.
Heat on the surface of the skin is transferred to the sweat until it has gained enough heat energy to evaporate. Therefore, when sweat evaporates, the body has successfully reduced some of the heat burden brought on by exercise.
The amount you sweat when you exercise, as well as the specific composition of your sweat (concentration of salts), depends on factors such as exercise intensity, body size and composition, sex, age, fitness level, environmental conditions, clothing, heat acclimation, aerobic capacity, diet, and/or hydration status.
We can also sweat in response to anxiety, stress, and fear.
7 Benefits of Sweating
Let’s look at the benefits of sweating and try and figure out the answer to our question, is sweating good for you?:
#1: Sweating During Exercise Helps Cool Your Body
As mentioned, the primary function of sweating during exercise is to help regulate your body temperature and remove excess heat from the body. Therefore, one of the key benefits of sweating during your workout is that it enables your body to maintain a safe body temperature so that you can continue exercising.
If you were unable to sweat, not only would a significant increase in body temperature make it uncomfortable to continue working out, but it could also lead to deleterious, if not fatal, health consequences.
Beyond the context of exercise, sweating also helps cool the body when you have a fever or are overheating due to environmental conditions.
#2: Sweating May Help Eliminate Excess Salt
If you suffer from hypertension or have a penchant for pretzels, chips, and salty foods, you’ll appreciate this benefit of sweating: sweating removes salt from the body.
It’s important to replace the electrolytes lost in sweat (primarily sodium and potassium, but magnesium and calcium as well) to ensure the electrolyte levels in your blood plasma stay adequately concentrated and properly balanced.
This can be achieved through electrolyte replacement beverages like sports drinks, or through a well-balanced diet with foods containing these minerals.
Examples of foods high in sodium include salty snacks, soups, cheese, frozen dinners, canned tuna fish, salted nuts and seeds, and seafood.
Foods high in potassium include beet greens, mushrooms, salmon, bananas, white beans, milk, acorn squash, and avocado.
Healthy foods high in magnesium include Brazil nuts, tofu, tuna, Lima beans, bananas, yogurt, and dark chocolate.
Finally, good dietary sources of calcium for runners include low-fat milk, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, sardines, fortified tofu, and dark, leafy green vegetables.
Excess salt can not only increase blood pressure, but may also increase the risk of kidney stones, so sweating out sodium can help keep your levels in check.
#3: Sweating May Help Eliminate Excess BPA
Bisphenol A, or BPA, is a potentially harmful industrial chemical used to manufacture certain types of plastic and epoxy resin. BPA is often found in food containers, bottled water, baby bottles, canned foods, and hygiene products.
However, according to the Mayo Clinic, BPA exposure can potentially cause adverse health effects such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, brain defects in fetuses, and behavioral problems.
BPA can accumulate in the body, leading to damage over time, but there is evidence to suggest that BPA can be effectively removed from the body by sweating.
#4: Sweating May Help Eliminate Excess PCBs
Polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly called PCBs, are manufactured organic chemicals used in coolants and insulators in transformers, capacitors, and motors, as well as plasticizers in paints and coatings of electrical wires and other electronic parts.
PCBs are known endocrine disruptors and have been linked to hypertension, cutaneous malignant melanoma, and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. They accumulate in fat cells in the body and have an exceptionally long half-life, so exposure lingers for a long time.
One study showed that another benefit of sweating is that it can remove certain toxic PCBs from the body.
#5: Sweating May Help Eliminate Phthalates From the Body
Phthalates are man-made compounds used in malleable plastic products, such as cooking utensils, plastic toys, feminine hygiene products, shower curtains, shopping bags, perfumes and fragrances, nail polish, cosmetics, and paints. They have been linked to infertility, obesity, allergies, asthma, and birth defects.
One small study found that phthalates can be released from the body through sweat even more so than via urine, which is another good reason to get your workout in and another one of the benefits of sweating.
#6: Sweating May Help Eliminate Heavy Metals From the Body
Although the “detoxing” effects of sweating are controversial and there isn’t an abundance of evidence suggesting you can really “sweat out impurities” to an appreciable degree, there is some evidence to suggest that certain heavy metals can be concentrated in sweat and eliminated via sweating.
Heavy metals like lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are known to be toxic and are suspected carcinogens. Heavy metals accumulate in the body and cause renal, endocrine, digestive, hepatic, and cognitive issues.
More importantly, while we tend to think of lead poisoning as mostly an issue of the past, now eradicated due to the ban on lead paint, lead exposure is not just confined to small children eating peeled paint from old houses as we once thought.
In fact, you can actually buy and eat organic, prioritize your health, and live in a newer home and still have a significant lead burden in your life.
For example, the 2019 testing and analysis of 168 commercial baby foods and baby formulas conducted by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) found at least one of these four toxic heavy metals in 95 percent of containers tested.
Moreover, 25% of the products tested contained all four heavy metals. Of the 168 baby foods tested, an alarming 94% contained lead, 75% contained arsenic, 73% contained arsenic, and 32% contained mercury.
One study found that sweating did seem to be an effective means of eliminating heavy metals from the body. Sweat samples from study participants were 10 times more concentrated with arsenic than blood samples, 25 times more concentrated with cadmium, and 300 times concentrated with lead than blood samples.
#7: Sweating Feels Good
Many runners find that sweating feels good. There is absolutely a mental component benefit to sweating. It can be satisfying to finish a workout feeling drenched in sweat, seeing perspiration as indicative of effort and a successful workout.
Even the physical sensation of sweating is a welcoming experience for some runners. Sweating can feel like a cleansing release or a “detox.”
Again, it’s important to note that sweating doesn’t really “detox” the body as much as we often think—detoxification is mostly the responsibility of the liver and kidneys, but we do remove certain salts, compounds, and impurities from the body.
Next time you’re out for a run on an unpleasantly sweltering day and find yourself annoyed by how soggy you’re feeling by the end, focus on the many health benefits of sweating and be proud of yourself for getting your workout in!
For more information specifically on electrolytes, check out our article: Fluids and Electrolytes: A Complete Runner’s Guide