A recent study of Finnish men concluded that taking a regular sauna can increase life expectancy. So while you can build up a healthy sweat through exercise, the benefits of sweating in the dry heat of a sauna when the body is inactive are not to be overlooked.
In the Nordic countries, saunas have long been established as part and parcel of everyday life. It’s a region with fewer deaths from heart conditions, strokes and stress compared with the US and UK.
Many gyms have saunas which most people bypass in favour of an extra ten on the treadmill, but we say make the swap at least once a week because saunas offer more benefits than you’d expect.
Saunas train your heart
Because the body needs to cope with the heat of a sauna, on entry the body’s heart rate is raised. Typically it rises from a rest rate of between 60 and 70 bpm (beats per minute) to 110 – 120 bpm.
If you go for longer periods in the sauna you can even elevate your rate to 140-150bpm.
You can train your heart even more by interspersing hot sauna sessions with cold plunges or showers, both of which will take the heart rate up by as much as 60% on temperature change – considerably more than moderate exercise.
Over time, this makes for a healthier heart, a lower resting heart rate, decreased blood pressure and a more responsive cardiovascular system.
Saunas ward off illness
You’re less likely to catch a cold if you sit in a sauna.
While in a sauna the body produces more white blood cells, the ones we use to fight all manner of viral ails, most commonly coughs and flu. The heat also helps cleanse through breathing – hot air drawn in and out through the nose will help cleanse the lungs and nasal passages. Many saunas also have eucalyptus oil to aid this effect.
Saunas offer stress relief
Sitting in a hot, quiet environment is a great stress reliever. The mind empties in the quiet, muscles relax in the heat and the body releases its feel-good hormones, endorphins.
Since heart disease and strokes are often stress-related, saunas are a great way to release your tensions and relax your body. They can also aid a good night’s sleep so the effects are long-lasting.
Saunas relieve pain and aid repair
Saunas are a great way to restore the body after a hard workout as they increase blood flow to the muscles, supplying them with glucose, fatty acids and oxygen for repair and taking away ache-inducing lactic acid on its return journey.
Saunas also help combat any aches and pains you might suffer because of conditions like arthritis. The endorphins released act like tranquilizers and the heat relaxes the muscles. The temperature also catalyses the body’s natural restorative processes, healing cuts and bruises faster than it would at room temperature.
Many doctors agree saunas are one of the best ways to detoxify the body.
Saunas bring on deep sustained sweating that differs to sweating from exercise. This deep sweat carries out with it more toxins than the cooling sweat of exercise which is mostly water. Through deep sweat, the body dispels all manner of things – copper, zinc, mercury, lead and other chemicals – all of which have been absorbed through contact with everyday materials in all kinds of environments.
Saunas cleanse and tone the skin
During the deep sweat of a sauna, the old cells of the skin are replaced with new and bacteria is rinsed out of the epidermal layer.
If you brush, scratch or tap your skin while you’re in the sauna your pores will open even more and the effects described above will be magnified.
Collagen is maintained when you do this and the skin becomes plumper and smoother and even glows after a sauna. And if you close the pores with a cold shower afterwards the effects last even longer.
Saunas burn calories
If you’re on a weight management program, sitting in a sauna is not an end in itself but can be blended with healthy eating and exercise to reach and stay at a target weight.
Newcomers to the sauna burn the most calories as the deep sweating process does require a fair bit of energy owing to the elevated heart rate, demands for more oxygen and stress on the system.
The number of calories that can be burned during a sauna sitting varies from 300 in 30 minutes at one end of the spectrum to 84 in 30 minutes at the other, but either way it’s more than sitting in front of the TV and every little helps!
So if you get the chance to add a regular sauna session to your regime, you should. However, pregnant women, those with pre-existing heart conditions and those with high blood pressure should consult their GP before using a sauna.