Many gyms include a sauna or even offer his and her saunas. Sure, spending a few minutes in the soothing heat feels great, but what’s the connection between saunas and fitness? Are sauna rooms just a nice gym perk, or do they offer health benefits?
Heat therapies have been associated with health and wellness for thousands of years. Long before barbells, treadmills, and fitness gyms came onto the scene, ancient Greeks, Romans, and Mayans were soothing their muscles in sweat lodges and other sauna precursors.
Our ancestors were onto something. They understood the sauna health benefits that today’s research is just beginning to corroborate. The sauna room at your gym isn’t just an extra membership treat. It may help you become fitter and healthier.
Saunas – What’s Actually Going On?
If you’ve never entered a sauna before, get ready for some heat. That hot, dry air isn’t just a feature; it’s the entire point. A sauna, as defined by Medical News Today, is “typically a room heated to between 70° to 100° Celsius or 158° to 212° Fahrenheit.” It can raise skin temperatures up to 40° Celsius or 104° Fahrenheit, which is why you shouldn’t spend too much time in the sauna (more on that later).
The heat and dry air of the sauna will cause you to sweat heavily as your body attempts to cool itself down. In fact, you can lose around a pint of sweat in a relatively short amount of time, according to Medical News Today. Your heart rate will also increase as your blood vessels widen.
Many of the benefits of a sauna after a workout come from these physiological changes.
Benefit #1 – Muscle Recovery
A tough workout can cause muscle soreness over the next few days. Sore muscles are no one’s idea of fun, and they can also slow down your fitness progress if the soreness keeps you out of the gym. While there are several great ways to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), saunas can also help.
Saunas increase circulation, which brings more oxygen-rich blood to your depleted muscles and can help improve your muscle recovery.
Benefit #2 – Relieve Muscle Tension
Applying heat is a great way to help your muscles relax and relieve tension. A 2015 study found that subjects who spent time in a sauna before performing wrist exercises felt less pain during the exercises than a control group who didn’t get any sauna time.
Benefit #3 – Better Cardiovascular Health
Though the sauna is not recommended for individuals with certain heart issues, spending time in the sauna’s heat may help improve heart health and stave off heart disease. A paper published by the Mayo Clinic reviewed all existing evidence of the sauna’s ability to improve heart health. It determined, “Beyond pleasure and relaxation, emerging evidence suggests that sauna bathing has several health benefits, which include reduction in the risk of vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, and neurocognitive diseases…” Additionally, a study of over 2,000 men in Finland (a country famous for its sauna affinity) found a link between sauna use and a lower risk of dying from heart disease as well as “all-cause mortality.” In other words, spending time in the sauna decreased their chances of dying of any other cause.
(Note: One of the best things you can do to protect your heart health is to engage in regular cardiovascular exercise as long as you have the green light from your doctor.)
Benefit #4 – Weight Loss
Do sauna benefits include weight loss? If you were to hop on a scale before a sauna session, you’d probably get a lower number when you come out. However, any immediate weight loss after spending time in a sauna is due to losing “water weight” through sweating. That might be helpful if you need to weigh in for a boxing match, but not if you want to lower your overall body fat.
The jury is still out on whether saunas can help you shed real pounds. Some sources call it a myth, while others, like the authors of this study out of Binghamton University, found a connection between increasing core body temperature and losing body fat. The study found that subjects who used a sauna three times a week for 45 minutes at a time lost up to 4% body fat over the course of four months.
Benefit #5 – Stress Relief
One of the most immediate sauna benefits you’ll experience when you settle down on the wooden bench and feel the heat envelope you is a deep sense of relief. Spending time in the sauna is often enjoyable, relaxing, and even meditative. As the tension in your muscles relaxes, you may find your stress ebbing away.
Chronic stress has been connected to a whole host of negative physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms, so any stress-relieving activities can help protect your overall health and well-being.
Do Sauna Fitness Benefits Include Detoxification?
Some people and institutions believe that spending time in a sauna room can help detoxify your body. The thinking goes that copious sweating will release toxins in your body, such as metals, alcohol, and nicotine. Maybe you’ve even heard that a good hangover cure is to “sweat out the alcohol.”
The truth is that while sweating may play a small role in helping to remove contaminants from the body, the real detoxifiers in your body are your liver, kidneys, and lungs.
Should You Visit the Sauna Before or After a Workout?
It might make intuitive sense to hit your gym’s sauna before you get hot and sweaty from your workout. However, it can be dangerous to visit the sauna before your workout. The heat of the sauna will relax and loosen your muscles, which can put you at a greater risk of pulling or tearing them during a workout. Additionally, you’ll be more dehydrated and at a greater risk of overheating. You’ll also feel more tired after sweating it out in the sauna. That’s no way to start your workout.
(A good way to start your workout is with these 10 pre-workout stretches.)
Instead, save the sauna for after your workout and consider it a reward for all the hard work you just completed. Before you head over to the sauna, however, make sure you understand some important sauna rules.
Use Good Sauna Etiquette
You can do whatever you want in your own personal sauna, but when visiting the sauna at your gym, you need to follow rules of good etiquette to keep the sauna clean and respect your fellow sauna-mates.
Shower Before Entering
Do not head to the sauna directly after your workout. It’s a small room and body smells can get uncomfortable fast. Instead, take a quick shower to wash off your sweat and workout grime.
In some countries, it’s commonplace to be unclothed in a sauna. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, this will not fly at your gym. Instead, wear a bathing suit or a towel before entering the sauna.
Spending time in a sauna is a restful experience, and many people prefer to enjoy the sauna in silence. Don’t bug your neighbors and don’t strike up a loud conversation with your gym buddy if other people are trying to enjoy the sauna in peace.
Leave Your Electronics in Your Locker
Extreme heat is not a great environment for your expensive phone, tablet, or smartwatch. Keep your electronics in your gym locker and enjoy some screen-free time in the sauna. This is a great opportunity to practice mindfulness or meditation or to simply let your busy brain relax.
Staying Safe in a Sauna
Spending time in a sauna is generally good for your health, but it can present a level of risk if you don’t use it correctly. Most importantly, limit your time in the sauna room. A good rule of thumb is to spend 20 minutes or less in a sauna. If you are new to the sauna, try spending five or 10 minutes inside during your first few visits to build up your heat tolerance.
All that sweating will dehydrate you, so make a point to drink plenty of water after your sauna session. You’ll also want to replenish your electrolytes.
Finally, people with heart conditions should check with their doctor before trying a sauna.
Should You Add Sauna Time to Your Gym Routine?
If you’ve never given much thought to the sauna at your gym, it might be time to give it a try. Anchoring is a powerful technique to add good habits to your life. By spending time in the sauna room after each workout, you can anchor this new, positive habit. Enjoy your sauna fitness benefits by finding a gym with a sauna near you.