In the last two weeks, I’ve never seen such a parade of sweaty people on TV. I mean this in the most positive of ways. I’m speaking of the best athletes in the world competing at the Olympic games in Tokyo. Besides thrilling competition, this spectacle allows us the opportunity to not only see the effects of heat on athletic activity but also humidity, where moisture on the body is unable to evaporate. According to a Reuters report, the oppressive conditions in Tokyo have been recorded at as much as 104 degrees Fahrenheit with the humidity hovering around 60%.
As I pointed out in July, record temperatures in the U.S. and around the globe have elevated heat stress into a major concern. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate, exposure to extreme heat can spiral into heatstroke, heat exhaustion and more. The young, old and especially people with preexisting conditions are susceptible to the damages of excessive hot weather. Exposure can even lead to a preventable death. Yet, it is also true that humans are hardwired to tolerate extreme heat. But to do so requires extra steps, preparation and acclimation.
Given that the games coincide with the year’s hottest weather in Tokyo, organizers did prepare, though it turned out to be hotter and muggier than expected. According to Reuters, mist-spraying stations, cooling vests, as well as artificial intelligence gadgets that warn of heatstroke risk have been deployed. In addition to water, salt tablets and ice cream are readily available to volunteers. To avoid extreme reflective heat of the roadways, organizers moved the marathon and race-walk to the cooler northern city of Sapporo. Start times for some events were moved to times later in the day. The July 31 report notes that approximately 30 people working the event have suffered heat-related illness. All had mild symptoms, which is good news.
The athletes have also prepared. They know to acclimate, and they have tried to train in very similar conditions to those they might expect to find in Tokyo. The idea is to allow their bodies to learn to cool down efficiently in that kind of environment. They know to hydrate. And in the heat of competition, we see the sweat of their labor.
“Perspiration is a symbol of glory — a badge of honor — as dripping, glistening athletes cross finish lines and push the limits of human endurance,” Sarah Everts, the author of a new book called “The Joy of Sweat” and a science journalist who has extensively researched this aspect of biology, recently explained on the TODAY show. Sweat is a bodily function we usually try to hide from the world. Sweating “is having a moment at the Tokyo Olympics,” she reminds us. “It’s a moment when the taboo is lifted, if only briefly, and everyone is celebrating sweat.”
Everts says people have come to think of sweat as gross. “We’ve come to hate the way perspiration looks, feels, smells and betrays the body’s emotional secrets — since people also sweat when they’re anxious or nervous.” She believes that now is the time to, instead of thinking of sweat as gross, to think of it as the “evolutionary marvel” it is.
We all have our own smell. It reflects a unique-to-you ecosystem of bacteria living in your armpit. It is what allows dogs to track humans based on having sniffed something that they’ve worn. It also supports a billion-dollar industry dedicated to masking it.
“Think of sweating as a superpower, with up to 5 million glands in your skin devoted entirely to cooling you down and preventing heat stroke,” says Everts. “Your body is literally trying to keep you alive, so why don’t we celebrate that more? I do hope that the Olympics will be this kind of tale of sweat love that perhaps remains in the culture.”
It is not just that people tend to think of sweating as gross, but the terminology associated with it is so negative. Just the idea that someone is a “sweaty” individual is negative. The term “don’t sweat the small stuff” suggests that your expression of concern is a negative one. Then there is “blood, sweat and tears,” which is a trio of suffering. Sweaty palms, sweaty pits, BO — all bad. It seems that only in athletics do you hear the concept of “working up a good sweat.”
As noted by NPR, Everts points out in her book that this superpower enables humans to thrive and dominate across the globe. “Sweating allowed us to forage out in the sun without overheating, while our predators were relegated to the shade for survival.”
People everywhere “crave a good sweat,” Everts explains on TODAY. Most every culture has a sweating ceremony, from sweating lodges to saunas. She also dispels a popular myth that sweating in a sauna detoxes the body. “Sweating in a sauna has some wonderful physical and psychological benefits,” but “getting rid of toxins is not one of them. The detox myth sticks around partly because people feel so great afterwards.”
“It just feels good to sit in a small space where the temperature can reach 195 degrees Fahrenheit — partly because the heart gets a workout, leading to a rise of endorphins and other ‘happy hormones’ responsible for making people feel good after exercise; and partly because the experience can be cathartic, helping people relax and forget the outside world,” says Everts.
“On a physical level, the pulse of a sauna goer spikes to 120-150 beats per minute — the equivalent of an exercise session without moving at all — as the heart tries to pump the hot blood from the interior of the body to the surface of the skin to cool it down. A long-term Finnish study found going to the sauna four times a week reduced a person’s risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.”
We shouldn’t leave the Olympics with the wrong opinion of sweat. Sweat is good.