It’s estimated that there are over 3 million saunas in Finland – roughly one for every house, public park and high-rise apartment in the country.(Considering the Finns boast a population of just 5 million, it’s fair to say they know a thing or two about sweating it up in the nude.)
“Sauna use appears to be quite low risk, particularly if there are no other serious health conditions,” Rich tells Coach.”There are many potential benefits such as heart health, improved endurance, as well as the social and relaxation benefits that a sauna may offer.”Aside from these, sauna use may give a feeling of relaxation, or enjoyable social interaction, which may account for the ‘feel good’ effect that people experience after using a sauna.”
Of course, Rich is quick to point out that you cannot simply recommend everybody to immediately jump into the sauna, because (surprise surprise) sitting in a small room as hot as 80 degrees Celsius is not going to agree with everyone.”Sauna or extreme heat exposure can potentially be dangerous, particularly when undertaken for prolonged periods, with any form of exercise, or unsupervised,” warns Rich.”It’s recommended that you discuss with your doctor before undertaking any of the treatments or training discussed.”
It’s more strenuous than you might imagine
For most Australians, sitting in the sauna is something that you would only do after a hard session in the gym or a leisurely swim in some upmarket hotel pool.In almost all cases, sauna use is seen as a form of recovery where you can recharge and refresh, but Rich says this is a common misconception amongst gym goers.”Sauna exposure should be seen as an additional training stress,” explains Rich.”Using a sauna has been shown to provide similar benefits to regular exercise, such as lower resting heart rate, higher red blood cell count, and better core temperature regulation during exercise.”
That’s right – stripping off to spend a period of time in a hot wooden room is just about the only way you can increase your athletic performance while sitting on your butt, but Rich says it’s important not to go overboard.”Sauna training exposure can be used as an adjunct to traditional training such as cardiovascular exercise — such as a walk, ride, swim, run — and resistance or weight training,” says Rich. “The best times to use a sauna would be on an ‘easy’ or light training day.”A sauna really shouldn’t be used on a hard training day, when instead priority should be given to more traditional recovery methods such as eating well or light stretching after intense exercise.”
The detox myth
Many people believe that a session in the sauna allows your body to remove toxins from your blood by sweating them out, and it’s a claim that many celebrities are fond of making,Gwyneth Paltrow uses saunas to “sweat out all the germs” she receives from other passengers on airplanes, and Jennifer Aniston and Lady Gaga regularly promote saunas as a way to rejuvenate cells and control pain.Sadly, Rich explains there’s no evidence behind the detoxifying nature of the sauna – it turns out that your kidneys and liver do a fine job of that as it is.”Unfortunately the sauna and toxins theory has been debunked by research!” says Rich.”However with all of the other benefits of sauna use or heat exposure, there are still plenty of reasons to use a sauna!”
How to use a sauna
So it turns out that saunas can be pretty damn helpful, especially if you find them relaxing. But getting the most out of a steam room isn’t as simple as plopping yourself down on a wooden bench and staying until even your ears have pruned up.According to Rich, there are several ways that have been proven in research to help fast-track the benefits of sauna, and almost all of them involve taking regular breaks. “Several short periods — for example, two to three visits each lasting three to five minutes — have been shown to be a relaxation tool,” says Rich.
“It’s possible that even short, regular exposure to heat has positive effects on longevity, and heart disease, although the exact relationships between heat exposure and these outcomes are still being investigated.”If jumping in and out every couple of minutes sounds like too much hassle (especially when you’re near-nude), then longer stretches can be helpful too.”Longer periods of up to 20-30 minutes appears to have significant benefits such as improved endurance in sport, decreased muscle breakdown when weight training, and improved blood sugar control,” explains Rich.
For the hardcore types, there’s even some evidence that pulling the bench press into the sauna could supercharge your strength – although you wouldn’t want to be caught dead doing it in your local gym.”Exercise in the sauna, or another hot environment, is another way that’s been recommended,” says Rich.
“There is some research currently underway in New Zealand that is investigating doing weight training in a very hot environment.”It appears that lifting lighter weights in a hot environment may give the same strength benefit as lifting heavy weights in a normal temperature environment, but without as much muscular soreness and fatigue.”