Sweating Has Nothing to Do With Losing Fat
His nickname was Stinky- so named, as one might rightly imagine, for the unmistakable musk that trailed behind him whenever he walked into the gym back home in Trinidad. He probably didn’t have a body odor problem under normal circumstances, but stinky was a true believer in the magical powers of sweating for burning fat and losing weight. Clad in two layers of gym attire, gracefully topped by a garbage bag, he would enter the gym already drenched (and ripe), and hop onto the treadmill for an hour or more of cardio. The average temperature back home was already 85-90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the air conditioning systems at the gym where I first trained didn’t do much save to reduce the humidity a bit. Needless to say, one day Stinky, soaked to the bone with sweat, collapsed during one of his aerobic perspiration marathons. When we got to him, he was severely feverish and a bit delirious, and we had to tear off his many layers of clothes and garbage bags and try to make him drink as much as possible while cooling him off. He ended up in the back of an ambulance bound for the general hospital. An extreme case- yes, but a useful example of how important many think sweating is for overall fat loss. A dangerous, and misguided idea that can do you more harm than good, not to mention, distract you from what you really need to be doing to lose fat.
Sweating Won’t Help You Burn Fat
Sweating has absolutely nothing to do with fat burning, and there is no relationship between how much you sweat and how much fat you burn. If sweating meant losing fat, we wouldn’t have a growing obesity problem here in the United States, as every summer everyone would just sweat off the extra pounds! There wouldn’t be anyone overweight living near the equator- I have lived there and trust me that really isn’t the case! Sweat- or perspiration if you want to be a bit more technical, occurs when our body excretes water and dissolved salts from our sweat glands along with a small amount of urea. Sweating is the way in which our bodies regulate our body temperature so we don’t overheat as the evaporation of sweat from the skin’s surface has a significant cooling effect on the body.
During exercise, when your muscles heat up from exertion, you will tend to sweat more, however the amount of sweat has nothing to do with how much fat you burn, or how effective your workout was. The oft heard post workout expression, “I had a good sweat” only means that your body did what it was designed to do while you were exercising and not much more. Some people naturally seem to sweat less than others while training, but this is not always an indication of how hard they were training. A study conducted at Osaka International and Kobe Universities, in Japan, found that men being perspiring faster than women and tend to sweat twice as much as women do while exercising  but that has no bearing on fat loss or levels of exercise intensity.
Where Did The Myth Of Sweating To Burn Fat Come From?
Every myth has its origins, and the myth that sweating helps you burn fat is no different. The problem stems primarily from observations of athletes in sports with standardized weight classes. A boxer or wrestler, for example, knows that they will be most successful if they compete on the upper side of their weight class limit as opposed to the lower limit. For obvious reasons, you would rather be in a ring weighing as much as you could and the same logic applies to bodybuilding and physique contests as well. Thus, a major part of preparation for a fight, or contest is ‘making weight’ or “getting down to fighting weight’. The goal being to fall right on the upper limit of your weight class when you are weighed before the event. To get to their desired weight, athletes often spend hours in saunas and steam rooms or try to sweat out extra pounds by running or doing aerobic exercises while wearing layers upon layers of clothing. The human body is composed of almost 75% water, so it makes sense if you need to shed a few pounds to try and sweat as much as possible- but you are only losing fluids-not fat.
The downside is that very often athletes suffer hyperthermia- heat exhaustion or heat stroke; when the body produces more heat than it can dissipate and our heat regulating sweat mechanisms are overwhelmed by the amount of heat generated.  By exposing yourself to high temperatures for prolonged periods of time in steam rooms, you can suffer heat stroke. Also, by wearing too many layers while exercising, or wearing plastic type materials that interfere with the water evaporation process that cools us down, you run a real risk of ending up in an emergency room.
These quick fix techniques, alone or combined with a restriction in water intake, can adversely affect your heart, nervous system, heat regulation, kidney function, electrolyte balance, body composition, and muscular endurance and strength. [4,5,6] Sadly, many athletes- boxers, collegiate wrestlers and bodybuilders have died as a result. The general impression, however, from seeing these athletes, is that they are able to drop 10 pounds easily in a couple of days and look pretty darned good in the process. Thus began the erroneous idea that if you want to lose weight and get into shape, you should try to sweat as much as possible the way athletes do. Many miss the point that any weight loss is temporary- athletes regain the weight after drinking a few glasses of water, and that no extra fat is lost in the process.
Sweating Doesn’t Burn Fat- So What Does?
So we have firmly established that sweating is a localized phenomenon that doesn’t increase your metabolism or help you do anything but cool down and lose water, but what can you do to lose fat? There are no secrets. Consistency in diet and exercise, with a strong emphasis on diet. Aerobic exercise, while noted for being a great way to work up a sweat, does have its benefits, but it isn’t going to sculpt your body into a work of art. (Read my article- Rethinking The Need For Cardio) For that, you need weight training of sufficient intensity (See our postings on High Intensity Training For Weight Loss) while eating the foods that you need and avoiding the ones that you don’t. Making sure you don’t eat more calories than your body needs is important as well (read our post on Understanding Calories For Weight Loss), but at the end of the day, how wet you are after training really isn’t part of the equation. So don’t sweat it!
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1 Mosher HH (1933). “Simultaneous Study of Constituents of Urine and Perspiration”. The Journal of Biological Chemistry 99: 781–790.
2 “Women outshine men in sweat test”. Sydney Morning Hearld. 9 October 2010. http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/lifematters/women-outshine-men-in-sweat-test-20101008-16c0c.html. Retrieved 21 October 2010.
3 Elert, Glenn (2005). “Temperature of a Healthy Human (Body Temperature)”. The Physics Factbook. http://hypertextbook.com/facts/LenaWong.shtml. Retrieved 2007-08-22.
4 Horswill CA. Applied physiology of amateur wrestling. Sports Med 1992;14:114-43.
5 Scott JR, Horswill CA, Dick RW. Acute weight gain in collegiate wrestlers following a tournament weigh-in. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1994;26:1181-5.
6 Steen SN, Brownell KD. Patterns of weight loss and regain in wrestlers: has the tradition changed? Med Sci Sports Exerc 1990;22:762-8.
7 Sawka MN, Young AJ, Francesconi RP, Muza SR, Pandolf KB. Thermoregulatory and blood responses during exercise at graded hypohydration levels. J Appl Physiol 1985;59:1394-401.