The trickle on your upper lip or down your back, the half moon shadow building on the underarm seams of your tank top, and oh boy, maybe you never knew the back of your knees could pool-up… well, it’s sweat, and our bodies actually crave it.
What’s actually going on that makes a sweaty flow feel good? Why does finishing a challenging yoga flow put us on a high?
Maybe you’re one to shy away from challenge. Maybe you’re a sweat junkie. The truth is our physical bodies demand challenge, and thrive on sweat-inducing movement. That satisfying feeling of a job well done shows up on our clothes, but it’s the chemical cocktail in our brains, and the surprising link to our ancestors, that discloses the true magic.
Let’s start with the stinkin’ truth.
Sweat. It’s function is to cool us down. It’s a salty mixture that’s mostly water, and when it evaporates off our skin we feel cooler. What a good thing; our bodies are smart and self-regulate temperature!
The stink of sweat comes from one of the two sweat glands. Our eccrine and apocrine glands both produce sweat, but it is the apocrine glands that create odor. It’s a result of sweat from apocrine glands, found in areas of the body such as armpits and groin, which secrete a type of sweat that bacteria prefers to break down creating an odor. Eccrine glands on the otherhand are all over the body, open directly to the surface of the skin, and aren’t associated with an odor.
Ok back to the benefits.
Sure, some sweat doesn’t smell pleasant, but the benefits far outweigh the stink. And while excreting (sometimes stinky) liquid does cool us down and that’s a pleasant feeling, it doesn’t really explain where that ultra sweaty high comes from.
Beyond the strictly liquid-on-skin cooling function is there something else going on?
Sweat Away Germs?!
In digging deeper on sweat and why it feels so darn good, it might be surprising to find out that we can sweat our immune systems stronger! Knowing this, it’s not surprising then that our brain rewards us with good-feels.
Sweat contains antimicrobial peptides that fight germs we might catch on our skin. One peptide, demicidin, has been shown in a study to be incredibly effective as fighting off harmful bacteria on our skin, and another medical journal suggests that sweat is actually pivotal in limiting infection for up to a few hours after contact.
Strengthening our immune system is certainly a biological win, and our noggin loves to incentivize good behavior.
No wonder we’re programmed to love it!
An Ancestral Happiness Cocktail
Got it. Our brain gets a little excited about fighting germs. But, what about the sweaty high? Sweating is often associated in our brains with with working hard. It’s the hard work, not necessarily the sweat, the holds the answers.
Why do we crave demanding, physical activity sometimes before we start doing it? Doesn’t challenging physical labor hurt?
At the very least demanding physical labor is certainly uncomfortable. Why would our brain want to reward us for that?
Evolution offers a hint.
When we’re working hard our brain rewards us with happy chemicals, and those chemicals are straight up addicting. We crave these chemicals, and our brain knows it. Rewarding uncomfortable behavior that needs to be repeated makes sense otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
Challenging behavior for our ancestors included the nearly constant search for food. Studies in anthropology, neuroscience, and human evolution suggest that exercise is not just good for our body but also our brain which THRIVES on challenge physical work. Research from the University of Arizona suggests that our ancestors evolution to hunter-gatherer may have caused an adaptation in the brain.
Hunting and foraging for food is no small task, and requires a tremendous amount of physical stamina and mental multi-tasking. For our ancestors it was an absolute necessity, because the alternative was starvation. Adapting to actually reward ourselves with pleasure chemicals for getting off our butts in the name of sustaining our lives seems like a pretty ingenious piece of evolution.
What may have evolved as a mechanism of simple necessity (move or starve), still offers benefits today… move and stay smart! The adaptive capacity model noted in the study also shares that the brains of people who engage in challenging physical activity actually have more connected brains than people who avoid challenging physical activity. This may also lend an explanation as to why cognitive function also begins to lessen as activity lessens with age.
Ok working hard is still uncomfortable, so what’s the good news? We can keep our brains awake and happy with a boost of hard work. When we are active and pushing ourselves our brains reward us with happy chemicals.
Unroll your mat in an Honest, a Transform, or Strong and get moving!
Move Before We Feel Like It
We know that physical activity releases endorphins – like a straight-shot of happy.
What can we do about it when we just don’t feel like moving, and our mood is low?
When we’re feeling the blues mustering up the motivation to get sweating can be tough. Good news if you’re not feeling up for a high intensity class that’s ok and may not even be necessary. Low-impact exercise sustained over a long period of time is more effect than one, short big push.
An article published by Harvard Health Publishing shared that for movement to offer optimized, long-term support for the symptoms of mild and moderate depression, it is the sustained work over a period of time, rather than the intensity of work, that makes the most difference. In fact sustained work over a longer period results in new neural pathways and brain development that fights against the symptoms of depression.
Key takeaway here? What we’ve all heard our instructors say is true. Don’t stop moving, just moderate when needed!
Getting a Good Diet of Movement
Committing to a moderate and sustained practice 3 times per week is going to yield more sustainable brain happiness than one intense class. But, that doesn’t mean those high boosts have no value. They absolutely do!
Because of the principle of adaptation our bodies cannot get stronger if we don’t consistently challenge ourselves just beyond our current capabilities (or current adaptations). This is also known as the principle of overload.
So, what works?
Think of it like a diet with simple steps
1) Work up a moderate sweat two-three times per week,
2) spice it up with challenge once a week,
3) incorporate variety, and
4) leave one or two days every week for rest and recovery — maybe that’s a nidra class or going for an easygoing walk around the block.
One great thing about yoga flow at Honest Soul Yoga is that intensity changes, variety, challenge and rest are easy things to find. Simply try different formats, different teachers, and different modifications!
Bottom line. Not only is a good diet of movement good practice for keeping the joints healthy — it yields tremendous results for the brain and our self-esteem!
When we move our bodies we increase our ability to move through and release the negative narratives in our brains that don’t serve a health self image. Coupled with the principles of Yoga our movement practice becomes a tool for self-study and meditation. We are able to take the seat of the witness to our thoughts, separating ego-charged judgements – about ourselves, outcomes, likes/dislikes, and our perceived performance – from the real truth of a yoga class, we did movements in a room with other people for an hour. Simply put, we were having an experience.
When we sweat there is no way to measure an objective outcome, because our sweat is personal to our own experience, our own exertion, our own work. There’s no other way to approach sweat than to observe that it is personally attached to the process we experienced, and cannot directly correlate to a specific outcome. We cannot precisely measure the distance someone ran, or number of chaturangas they completed simply by taking a look at their sweat. Sweat tells us there was a challenge – heat, exercise, stress – and the body responded. Sweat tells us that our body participated in a process that it is designed to do. That’s it.
The simple, wise process is so much more important than any targeted outcome because at the end of the day we are souls having a human experience and the discomfort, sweat, joy, exhaustion, exhilaration, and rest are all a part of the ride.
About the Author
Julia Lopez – ERYT500, YACEP, CPT
is the Co-founder of Honest Soul Yoga and Founded of Practice Everywhere, HSY’s exclusive yoga education and adventure partner.She is a nationally recognized teacher trainer who offers yoga teacher training in locations across the country and offers yoga online reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers with featured courses on AmazonPrime and YouTube. Julia considers herself a ‘yoga lifer’ coming to the practice in her teen years, and practicing and teaching ever since. She considers it a true honor to share the healing power of Yoga that, for so many, starts with cultivating a deep respect for the miracle of the physical body through the poses, and then permeates into the deep layers of energy, emotion, and soul through it’s timeless philosophy, cultivation of daily habits, and the ritual of meditation.