What’s the “sweat” doing in “sweat equity”?

Would you believe the term “sweat equity” actually has its own Wikipedia entry? Here’s the definition: “a party’s contribution to a project in the form of effort and toil.” Effort and toil. Wow, that definitely hits home right now because getting to the gym in the middle of raising a toddler, maintaining a household, and working nearly full-time is definitely equal parts effort and toil. I go, I see, I yawn. And a little voice inside wishes that gyms had nap rooms.

Sweat equity is what happens when we actually show up and, you know, sweat. Work hard. Don’t take “no” for an answer. In the last few weeks, I’ve done the math and realized I need a whole lot more sweat equity right now if I want to get back to the “healthy” I knew I could be BFB (before baby). Sweat equity means sweating. It means real work.

This is what I’m talking about when I’m talking about sweat equity. You want your towel and water. You look great. And you feel awesome. (Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

And it really is equity. It means putting something into yourself—a real investment of time and effort—that is going to reap tangible, measurable benefits down the road. Like investment equity, it grows faster the more you put in. Compound interest is real, and so is “compound fitness.” What I do today makes me stronger tomorrow, which means I can work harder tomorrow, which means I get stronger tomorrow than I would have if I hadn’t put in sweat equity today, which means…you get it, right?

Note: “Sweat” does not equal “pain.”

This morning, I did not want to go to the gym. I just didn’t. I didn’t want to get on a treadmill and feel uncomfortable because I’m not in shape right now. I nursed a cup of coffee for twenty minutes of walking in the winter air on the Puget Sound coast near Seattle, where we live. I even tracked my walk with my GPS and felt good about the 2000 or so steps I put in.

But those steps weren’t sweat equity. Those were easy—to me, today. They would not have been easy when I was seven or eight months pregnant. Then, walking at a moderate pace would count as sweat equity. Today, a moderate walk is a moving meditation, but it’s not the kind of hard work that will reap strength and endurance gains, because it doesn’t challenge my body. For that, I need to sweat.

But not to the point of pain. This is important. Exercising to the point of pain is the opposite of good. When you’re sweating due to giving your body just the right amount of challenge, you’re aware that you’re working hard—maybe you’re even wearing a heart rate monitor to measure that effort and stay within a safe heart rate zone—but you’re not in pain.

A solid aerobic workout session never hurts. It just feels, well, sweaty.

Very sweaty, if you’re me right now, even when you’re tootling along at what sounds to a before-baby self like a really easy pace. When I run, I sweat, even when it’s a relatively easy run—say, a pace I could sustain for an hour-long workout. That means I’m getting stronger. That means I’m revving up my body’s ability to use fuel efficiently and build muscle for strength so that the next run goes a little easier. Those are really the only things we are in control of when it comes to changing our metabolism, by the way: we can build muscle, which requires more energy to maintain than an equal amount of body fat does, and we can do aerobic exercise that pushes our heart rate up (after getting the green light from our doctor—always!).

Public service announcement: Those diet pills that push your heart rate up are NOT the same thing as using sweat equity to up your heart rate safely during an aerobic workout.

This whole sweat equity system only works if it’s YOU doing the work. Drugs are a dangerous shortcut. One acquaintance who took “fat-burning” pills (which just push your heart rate up) in order to shed bodyfat for a physique competition reported later that her body was a mess afterwards. These pills can contain a lot of caffeine, and have in the past contained very dangerous substances such as ephedra. In short, please don’t go there. Go to the gym and sweat.

Recent workouts: The sweat equity topic hits Every48 today because last week, I only put one deposit in the sweat equity bank, which is not enough right now to reap fitness and weight-loss results. I need to put in a lot more work to knock off these last ten pounds and get back to marathoning. This week will be better. So far this week (my “week” starts on Saturday), I’ve done a half-hour rowing session at the gym (Saturday 1/7) and a 40-minute treadmill run today at around 11 minutes per mile, which sounds slow for a runner with a 3:53 marathon personal best, but is “just right” for where I am today.

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