Don’t Sweat the Little Things

around 1.400 words, estimated reading time: 6-7 min.

Short and frequent movement breaks at the workplace are the most efficient way to reverse pathological adaptations to sitting and sedentary behavior.

We briefly covered the science behind this approach in this post and that one and at greater length, in the ebook we prepared for the Philosophy Department of the University of Lund. But we left unaddressed an unpleasant side-effect: movement breaks can make you sweat.

In this post, we look at how to get around this potential issue.

Sweat basics

When dealing with sweat issues, there are a few facts worth remembering:

  1. sweat has no ‘off’ mode and we are sweaty even when we don’t feel so;
  2. sweat is odorless and usually remains so;
  3. how much you sweat is not related to how hard you train but to how efficient you are, and finally,
  4. the fitter you are, the earlier you sweat in response to exercise, even of low or moderate intensity.

(1) Barring specific medical conditions (and neglecting the response to stress) the amount of sweat we produce is proportional to the heat our body must get rid off. Metabolic function, brain activity, and locomotion all generate residual heat and we are sweating continuously to dispose of it. Most of this sweat is reabsorbed by the skin or evaporates faster than it is produced. But clothes may impair evaporation, and extra cooling may be needed due to some unusual mechanical effort, in which case enough sweat may accumulate .

(2) We produce two types of sweat: one is water with some trace minerals (produced by eccrine glands) and the other contains, in addition to minerals, proteins and fatty acids (produced by apocrine glands). Bacteria that live on the surface of our skin and hair feed on those proteins and fatty acids, and unpleasant odors are the byproduct of their bodily functions, not ours.

(3) If someone were 100% efficient in the execution of a movement, all the energy spent would go to the movement and none would be lost as residual heat. The fact that we are constantly sweating is an indication that our body is not 100% efficient at anything — not even basic metabolic functions, brain activity, or locomotion.

(4) Too much heat impacts performance negatively: it disrupts muscle contraction, re-routes blood from the muscles to the capillaries in the skin, etc. Similarly, an excessive loss of minerals, fatty acids, and proteins impacts post-exercise recovery. Consequently, the cooling response of athletes is triggered earlier than every one else’s, including casual exercisers, and the concentration in minerals, fatty acids, and proteins of their sweat is lower.

Sweat treatment & prevention

Both (1) and (2) entail that deodorants and antiperspirants are, if convenient, unnecessary. For instance, wearing loose clothes would allow for evaporation and thus prevents sweat accumulation. Or wiping one’s armpits with a moist paper towel would wash out proteins and fatty acids and prevent (bacteria’s) body odors.

(As an aside, chemicals contained in deodorants can enter the bloodstream through capillaries, and the same holds for antiperspirants that literally soak the skin with chemicals in order to trap sweat under the skin‘s surface. Thus, the above countermeasures may appeal to anyone concerned with potential health risks.)

Similarly, (3) entails that efficient movement produces less residual heat. Efficiency is in part dependent on skill but also in part on the movement itself, with some being more inefficient than others. For instance, it is usually estimated that 75% of the energy spent by casual bicycling goes up in heat and that professional bicycle racers can only improve their efficiency by 5%.

Exercise selection for movement breaks

While (2) is not highly relevant for the selection of movements for movement breaks, (1), (3) and (4) can help with it when not getting (visibly) sweaty is a constraint. In a nutshell, (3) tells us which kind of exercise we should choose while (1) and (4) tell us how effective at not getting sweaty we can expect to be. More precisely:

  • From (1), we know that we cannot prevent sweat altogether.
  • From (3), we know that we should prefer high-efficiency movements.
  • From (4), we know that the fitter we get, the harder it will be to prevent sweat particularly with movements that remind our body of those we practice for sport.

Slow and controlled movements that focus on stability rather than other physical qualities — like strength, endurance, or speed — are therefore less likely to trigger a sweat response. Great movement options include the following:

  1. Body-weight only: Any of the ‘McGill Four’ for whole-body stability; slow pistol squats, slow reverse lunges, and curtsy lunges, or slow one-legged hip hinge for lower-body stability.
  2. With added resistance: Assuming access to kettlebells at the office, the lower-body movements above turn into whole-body stability movements, especially with a single kettlebell held in the rack position. Also with kettlebells, windmills and Turkish Get-Ups.

As a general guideline, slowing down a single-limb movement increases the stability demand and is a great way to challenge oneself even with a limited amount of weight while developing proprioception. [Tip: slow down the speed to all the videos linked above to ×0.5 or ×0.25 to have the ideal execution speed.]

Progress without sweat

The best advice, when it comes to preventing sweat to become an obstacle in the way of movement breaks, would get fitter and more confident with your movement.

The first part follows from (4) above: although fitter people have an early-onset sweat response to exercise, the fitter one is, the more mechanical work is required for their body to register an effort as exercise and trigger a sweat response. The second part follows when we do not neglect the response to stress and takes a little longer to explain.

Consider a lifter capable of performing a single repetition of the Turkish Get-Up (TGU) with a 24 kg kettlebell but performing instead:

  1. a single repetition of TGU with a 12kg kettlebell held bottom-up; or:
  2. a single repetition of TGU with a paper cup filled with water balanced on her closed fist.

Our lifter’s nervous system would likely not register either of the above as ‘exercise’. The marginal effort in (1) is only half of her top TGU and would not trigger alone a sweat response unless performed for multiple repetitions. The marginal effort for (2) is negligible. On the other hand, the instability of the kettlebell in (1) and the risk of spilling over liquid in (2) might be enough to trigger a stress response and cause sweating as a result. (For the notion of “marginal effort”, see For geeks only after the Concluding Remarks)

Overcoming a stress response provides a powerful training stimulus. In our example, practicing variations (1) and (2) would help our lifter becoming more efficient in the TGU motor pattern. Eventually, she would become confident enough in her ability to stabilize a weight to attempt multiple repetitions with a 24 kg kettlebell, and from there, a single repetition with a heavier kettlebell.

Concluding Remarks

Some motor patterns lend themselves better than others to high-frequency movement practice (‘greasing the groove’). These movements are a natural choice to address adaptations to sitting without substantial inroads in one’s time-budget.

Sweat is a minor inconvenience on the way to improving posture through activation of the muscles that tend to be inhibited by too much sitting. But more than that, sweat is also an important indicator of how efficient and confident one has become in the execution of a movement and we can learn to use it as a feedback to improve our daily practice.

[For geeks only]

The baseline effort corresponds to the mechanical work required to move one’s bodyweight alone and the marginal effort to the additional mechanical work imposed by the external resistance. For a 48kg lifter, 24kg and 12kg TGUs amount respectively to 150% and 125% of the baseline effort, while for a 72kg lifter they amount to 133% and 116% of the baseline effort. For both, downsizing the kettlebell from 24kg to 12kg is a 50% reduction of the marginal effort.

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