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If I’m Sweating, But Not Working Up a Sweat, Am I Still Burning Calories?

The sun is my gym buddy, bro

I would swear that a full half of the men who frequented the Bally Total Fitness Executive Club never reemerged from the locker room’s main entrance to venture off toward one of the club’s primary workout areas. Instead, they retreated through the back door of the locker room and spent their entire time on the premises migrating from the steam room, to the sauna, then out to the poolside area to use the jacuzzi, before hitting the showers and starting the whole process all over again. It was the most curious triathlon I’d ever seen — a very comical mockery of circuit training.

After observing the actions of these men, I’m sure I smugly shook my head and went back to collecting towels and laundry, satisfied that I was burning more calories by wheeling laundry carts through the locker rooms and folding towels than any of those guys were by spending two hours sweating in any of their three different relaxation stations.

What are you talking about? They’re sweating non-stop! Surely they must be burning calories!

My friend, this is a classic case of specious reasoning. I’m sure your brain posited the following rationale: “People who work out sweat profusely. I sweat profusely when I sit in the sauna, steam room or jacuzzi. Therefore, I am working out.”

Such reasoning is extremely attractive, particularly if you have zero desire at all to legitimately work out, but you want to convince others (and possibly yourself) that you worked out by manifesting all of the signs that a workout took place. The truth is, though, no workout took place, save for the mental gymnastics that were required to justify your two hours of sloth as productive gym time.

Sweating is your body’s way of cooling itself. Period. You didn’t move your body, you didn’t move any weight and you didn’t expend any energy, so you burned nothing.

That can’t be the only reason people sweat! Don’t we lose weight when we sweat as we burn calories?

If that were true, you’d always be sweating, because your body is burning calories constantly throughout the day and night. Yet you only sweat when your body heats itself sufficiently as a result of your great physical exertion, or when it’s in a hot or humid environment.

During a business trip to Phoenix in September 2017, my Midwestern body simply wasn’t prepared for a desert environment. I was dressed in my customary business attire, replete with coat and tie, and I did everything I could to wait until the last possible moment to venture out into the oppressive desert heat and intercept my Uber. 

Well, those 30 seconds between the door of the airport and the door of my Uber were my undoing, as I deteriorated from an upstanding, pristine businessman to a soggy, sweat-stained mess in half a minute. I’d been training long hours in the pool and on the stepmill in the months leading up to this, and perhaps my body’s tendency to start sweating early betrayed me in that setting and caused me to sweat more quickly and more intensely than I otherwise would have. However, I can assure you there were no calories burned during that embarrassing anecdote, save for the three to four I may have burned walking to the car and sitting down.

I hate to break it to you, but 84 percent of the fat you burn exits your body through your lungs. You literally exhale it out of your body. The remainder is lost in the form of water, and while it may make its exit through your pores, it’s more likely to depart your life forever when you take a leak in the middle of your post-workout shower.

So why do we even have saunas in gyms if they don’t help you burn calories?

Because there are benefits to sweating for its own sake. One of the foremost is the ability to eliminate unhealthy toxins from the skin, thereby resulting in healthier overall skin. Or you can sit in the sauna in a sweatsuit and use it as a shortcut to lose as much water weight as possible before the weigh-in for your debut fight in the UFC. 

But the bottom line is, the heat in saunas and steam rooms is produced either by water being dumped over hot rocks, or by a generator heating water and pumping it into the room you’re sitting in. Meanwhile, the heat hitting your body at a baseball game is produced by the sun. All of which is to say, if you ever get the sense that you’re sweating and have no control over it, the safe bet is that whatever is doing the thing that’s causing you to sweat is exerting all of the energy in that situation, not you.