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Sweating is Cool, Useful and Fun

Everybody sweats, so everybody wins!

03.29.17
The-Cool-Health-Benefits-of-Sweating-Man-Repeller

I use hangovers as an opportunity to complain, eat, sleep and cancel plans more than usual. I’ve never understood those friends of mine who like to “sweat it out.” Why sweat when you could order morning pizza? But, after a set of winter weeks spent re-immersing myself in the world of hot yoga, I began to think about sweating differently. Maybe my friends were on to something.

As a former high-school Bikram devotee looking to cross-train, stretch and grow an ab or two, NYC’s Y7 Studio is right up my alley. It’s an hour of sweaty, 90-degree vinyasa set to hip hop, indie and other unidentified “good songs” that I’d Shazaam the shit out of if I had my phone on me. Thanks to Y7, my balance has improved, I’m stronger — which has made my other workouts more productive — my whole body has tightened, I’m more conscientious of what I eat and drink, I sleep better and I’m less ready to spontaneously combust like an angry human pimple in anxiety-thick situations. There is no going back; this is my thing now.

But! I wanted to know if there was actual science behind the purported benefits of hot yoga’s heat, or if all that sweating simply felt good. Could I get the same advantages without the dramatics?

Sarah Levey, co-founder of Y7 Studio, is (obviously) a proponent of heated exercise. First, she explained why the infrared heating technology their studios use is different than, say, turning up the thermostat in your prewar shoe box, shutting all the windows and getting into a downward-dog position.

Rather than blowing hot air on your skin, she told me infrared heat warms up molecules in air, which warms your blood and organs, then the skin. “It’s a dry heat,” she explained. “Arizona versus Miami.”

We talked heat-for-health benefits. “Heat is good for circulation,” said Levey. “Good blood circulation rids the body of old cells, which helps cell rejuvenation. You need those new cells for wound recovery. Blood moves quicker, so you’re able to push out toxins. Infrared heat, specifically, eases inflammation and calm the nerves. Finally, because your blood flow speeds up and circulation increases, your body begins ridding itself of fat cells and weight loss is promoted. Just by being in the room for an hour, you’re burning 200 to 300 calories.”

I can’t repeat this enough: The way I feel after a Y7 Studio class is…high? High and amazing and healthy, as though I want to live off of green things for the rest of my life and never get mad at anyone ever again. I’ve gone hungover and left feeling brand new. But does it actually detox you? Is that possible?

“Certain poses, like a twisted chair, put pressure on and bring blood to specific areas of your body that can have a detox effect,” Levey said. “But it’s probably not going to reverse the six drinks you had last night. Sweat is an outlet. You sweat when your heart starts pumping. You get your heart rate up in class, your blood moves faster, you begin flushing out old blood cells and recirculating new ones. You feel better because you’re not stagnant, your blood is not stagnant, you’re moving.”

The-Cool-Health-Benefits-of-Sweating-Man-Repeller-2

After my talk with Levey, I called Lauren Berlingeri of Higher Dose, the infrared sauna that no one can shut up about in NYC, to get deeper into this sweaty stretch.

“Not all sweat is created equal,’ Berlingeri told me. “Traditional workout sweat is salty, it smells funny. That’s because cortisol, the stress hormone, is activated. Infrared saunas lower your cortisol levels and up serotonin, so your body is in a state of healing.”

Her belief is that infrared heat pulls heavy metals, radiation and environmental pollutants out of fat cells. “The only time you can truly detox is when your body is in state of healing,” she told me. “Think about night sweats.” (Always do!) “That’s your body trying to heal. It can’t detox while working out because it’s in flight-or-fight mode. You know how you feel smelly and sticky after working out? After an infrared sauna session, you will feel clean and light. It’s a purge unlike any other.”

All of this sounded great. I’m a sucker for all sorts of alternative-medicine hypebeasts and am sold no matter what (very G.P. of me). BUT, I figured it was time to talk to an MD. I called Dr. Jordan Metzl, “The Athlete’s Doctor,” named one of New York’s top sports medicine physicians by New York Magazine. His professional opinion about whether people actually sweat out substantial toxins (including metals) was that they do not; if they could, he said, he hadn’t heard of supporting research. “Your kidneys are more involved with filtering out toxins than sweating.”

“In general, sweating needs to be looked at mechanically,” he told me. “The primary way the body cools itself is evaporation. When your body sweats, and that sweat evaporates, the evaporation reduces your core body temperature. Your skin is usually responsibly for maintaining your core body temperature so you don’t overheat, like a car. If you overheat, that can lead to heatstroke or other heat-related illnesses, which can range from annoying to deadly. Your sweat mechanics are hugely important.”

Now, everyone has a different sweat rate, he told me. Certain people sweat more than others for a whole variety of reasons: weight, resting body temperature, fitness level. Interestingly, the more fit you are, the faster you sweat because your body is conditioned to cool itself more quickly. Also, sweat isn’t the sole indicator that you’re getting a workout. You can tone your muscles or raise your heart rate without beading or dripping. Think about Pilates, barre or non-heated vinyasa yoga.

The environment contributes to your sweatuation. When it’s hot, we sweat. (Duh.) But when it’s humid, our sweat can’t evaporate off the skin, which accounts for that so-hot-I-can’t-breathe feeling. A hot, humid setting has the highest risk of heat illness — so take care to hydrate during non-infrared hot yoga or other humid-climate workouts. I’d like to point out that this is a great excuse to whip out anytime anyone asks you to do literally anything during an East Coast summer.

As for the supposed metabolic benefits of infrared saunas and, more specific to our conversation, infrared-heated yoga, Dr. Metzl didn’t agree with the claims I listed, but he also didn’t have a problem with them. “So long as you hydrate before and after and replenish the water you’re losing, so long as you don’t overstretch a muscle because you’re warmer than usual, hot yoga is fine.”

Good news, because I’ve got sweaty sleep scheduled for around 4 tomorrow morning (non-infrared), and a Y7 class at 9 a.m.

Illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

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  • Adrianna

    I would recommend the heated flow classes at Vida Yoga in NYC if you’re not into the $25 drop in rate or trendy atmosphere

  • ValiantlyVarnished

    I suffer from hyperhidrosis so excessive sweating for me has always been a source of annoyance and embarrassment. Having said that – I have been REALLY wanting try Hot Yoga. I figure since I already sweat like a horse it wouldn’t be too bad and I think it would be great for my overall fitness.

  • Rose Leger

    I, too, just began my hot yoga practice (after years of fearing I’d burn into a pile of ash in a 100 degree room) and I am so addicted!!! Who knew sweat could be so blissful!!

  • Hannah Cole

    WHERE IS MY SYDNEY ALTERNATIVE TO Y7!!
    I was such a bikram fan until I got bored. Need the beatz.

  • Sadako

    Levey lost me at “toxins” and we took a sharp veer into fruit loop territory with “inflammation.”

  • Adrianna

    We’re all told to exercise as means to change our outer appearance, but one of the most helpful things I’ve learned as an adult is that exercise and completing physical challenges helps me process emotionally.

    I lost my grandfather when I was 23. We weren’t particularly close, (literally – he lived in Poland at the time) but I still struggled with his death and was suddenly confronted with the sacrifices my family made to immigrate to USA. My grandfather actually never driven a car. He either walked or used my old bike to get to his factory job in New Jersey. I decided to bike for the first time in years, from the East Village to the George Washington Bridge, and back to the East Village. It took all day, I was uncomfortable on the seat, and had to take a lot of breaks. But I grieved my grandfather’s death.

    I started practicing yoga in a donation-based studio for the physical therapy benefits, but I was surprised how many times I ended the class crying. It was more cathartic than talk therapy.

  • Bain

    Sweat is not how the body removes toxins. (Don’t believe me? Cite me a peer-reviewed article or credible scientific source to back your position, please.) Sure, you might lose a small portion of urea through sweat, but your body would otherwise process it through urine. By the way, ‘heating the molecules of the air’ may be more comfortable than ‘blowing hot air’ around the room, but the heat affects your body in the exact same ways. If you’re taking a lot of heated yoga classes, be sure to not only drink enough water, but also look at hydration solutions–increasing sweat increases your loss of electrolytes (basically salts) through sweat, as they are the transport mechanism for water…like a key that allows the water to unlock the door to move from cell to cell. If you sweat a lot, you’re losing more than just water.