Almost every gym in America has a sauna or steam room, but they’re usually neglected as we sprint past them for the treadmill and weight room. To most of us, a stint in the sauna may seem an indulgent treat, like a festive holiday beverage, rather a necessary part of our wellness routine.
But the opposite is true in other cultures where the benefits of sauna time are considered vital to health. In Finland, sauna tradition dates back to the 12th century, and the country is still crazy about saunas: Finland boasts approximately one sauna for every three people, and 99 percent of Finns sauna it up at least once per week! A bunch of other cultures have their own versions: the Turkish hammam, Russian banya, and Korean Hanjeungmak, to name a few. While each has a unique take on the hot and/or steamy room concept, all emphasize its cleansing and healing properties. Could these cultures be on to something?
Breaking a Sweat
“Sauna” and “steam room” tend to be used interchangeably in the U.S., but there are a few differences between the two. A sauna gets super hot—between 160 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit—and has low humidity, while a steam room runs at a more reasonable 110 to 120 degrees.Steam rooms, as the name implies, also have much higher humidity.
While a hard workout can leave us dripping wet, saunas and steam baths provoke the same physical response without the effort. During exercise, body temperature rises and a response system kicks in to avoid overheating. Circulation picks up, blood flow goes to the skin, and sweat pours out—all in the name of keeping us coolTemperature regulation during exercise. Gleeson, M. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 1998; 19 Suppl 2:S96-9.. During a short sit in a sauna, the average individual’s pulse will rise by 30 percent as blood flow goes to cool the skin. As the circulatory system kicks into gear, one can sweat out about a pint of fluid in less than 20 minutes.
Weight loss is another draw for sauna-goers. Although some calorie-burning claims exist, they’re likely exaggerated. Some research shows that exercising in the heat may boost metabolism by a small amount—but probably too small to cause a big boost in caloric burnEffect of temperature on muscle metabolism during submaximal exercise in humans. Starkie, R. L., Hargreaves, M., Lambert, D. L. et al. Experimental Physiology, 1999; 84:775-784.. Likewise, simply sitting and sweating is unlikely to burn more than a couple of extra calories. The scale will certainly show a slight drop because losing water easily shaves off a few pounds. However, fat and muscle won’t budge no matter how high you crank the heat, which means the weight loss is only temporary, and with that sweat-induced weight loss, dehydration can be a risk. Bottom line: If you shaved off a few digits on the scale with sauna time, it’ll just return once you rehydrate.
Although sweating it out in a hot room isn’t the magic bullet for weight loss or squeaky-clean insides, sauna therapy may offer some real benefits to both healthy people and those with chronic disease such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart failureBeneficial effects of sauna bathing for heart failure patients. Blum, N., & Blum, A. Experimental and Clinical Cardiology, 2007; 12:29-32..
Even if lowering cholesterol or post-workout recovery are not on the agenda, we could all use a little R & R. Ample anecdotal evidence (and first hand “research” by the present writer) supports the claim that saunas and steam baths offer a great way to relax and reduce stress.Since “relaxation” is pretty subjective, there’s not a whole lot of strong science on the subject. However, one research study found that in depressed patients, sauna use led to higher levels of relaxation and reduction of other mental symptomsRepeated thermal therapy diminishes appetite loss and subjective complaints in mildly depressed patients. Masuda, A., Nakazato, M., Kihara, T. et al. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2005; 67:643-647..
Those in search of a detox or weight-loss magic bullet, look elsewhere. But for people looking to improve heart health, boost athletic performance and recovery, or just relax, a sauna or steam room might be worth checking out. Research is still limited and lots more needs to be done, but sweating it out (without the workout) appears to be safe and beneficial for most people as long as they follow a few guidelines:
•Skip the booze before and after •Keep it to 15 to 20 minutes •Hydrate before and after (a couple of glasses of water should do the trick) •Head for the door if you start to feel sick or dizzy