That drip, drip, drip down your back during exercise is your friend—sweat happens so we don’t overheat and pass out. But the process of sweating is very individual; every body has its own perspiration point. So should your workouts be hot and sweaty or cool and dry? Experts say it’s largely a matter of personal preference, and while studies point to the importance of “vigorous” exercise, that doesn’t directly translate to “sweaty” activities. Let’s break it down.
Much of the appeal of sweating is mental. “Most people don't feel like they've exercised unless they’ve worked up a good sweat,” says Sara Chelland Campbell, PhD, assistant professor of exercise science and sports studies at Rutgers University. But Tanya Becker, co-founder and co-author of The Physique 57 Solution, says more sweat may not mean a better workout. “Unfortunately, sweating doesn’t necessarily have much bearing on how hard you’re working out or ultimate weight loss,” she says. “You will lose water—hence weight—but you'll drink it right back.”
So why is the connection between sweat and exertion so strong in our minds? A popular study this year, from James Cook University in Australia, showed that people who reported 30 percent or more of their activity was “vigorous” lowered their mortality rates by 13 percent—and that study turned into media headlines like “Sweating more can increase life span.” But the headlines were misleading; the study wasn’t about sweat, it was about working out vigorously, which doesn’t equal tons of perspiration for every individual body. “The bottom line is some people naturally sweat a lot during exercise and some don’t,” says Brandy Yearous, creator of The Super Mom Workout. “It’s not one-size-fits-all.”
Becker says Physique 57 rooms are temperature- and humidity-controlled for a reason: “Exercising in a hot and humid room will exhaust you faster, and you won’t burn as many calories because you will stop working out sooner,” she notes. “Your caloric burn depends on the intensity and duration of exercise. If you exercise in an air-conditioned room, you won’t sweat as much as if you were in a hot room, but you are still burning calories.”
On the other hand, people who love Bikram yoga or super-sweaty SoulCycle classes seem to revel in their perspiration-filled workouts. “Some people just don’t feel like they’ve exercised hard enough unless they are pouring sweat,” says Yearous, adding that if you’re into hot workouts and you stay hydrated with water while you’re exercising, that’s great. Just the fact that you enjoy them will help increase your fitness because you’ll go more often.
Campbell notes that according to the American College of Sports Medicine, the ideal temperature for indoor exercise is 68 to 72 degrees F, and Yearous recommends small temperature variances based on the type of exercise you’re doing. “It should be cooler in a Zumba/dance class working nonspecific muscle groups in tandem,” she says. “If it were too hot, people would slow their movements and burn fewer calories.” But in a strength and conditioning class where the instructor is isolating muscle groups for specific exercises, Yearous says the temperature should be slightly warmer so the muscles don’t get cold and tighten up.
In the end, getting a good workout is less about sweat output and more about exercising regularly and including some vigorous activity in your routine, which are the real keys to optimal fitness. So if you love to feel that drip, drip, drip, go for it—and if you don’t perspire much during your gym classes but you feel strong afterward… well, don’t sweat it.