For most of us, a sauna is just the heated wooden closet hidden in the corner of the locker room at your local gym. But spend any amount of time in Finland and you’ll realise that a sauna is probably the most under-utilised feature the gym has to offer. Finnish people love saunas - they have private ones in their homes and apartments as well as communal ones where you can sweat while you catch up on the latest gossip. It turns out there’s a lot of research to back up those sweat sessions, too. Here are seven health benefits of saunas you should know about - and why you should spend more time in them.
1. Saunas provide a workout.
No, seriously. Earlier this year, researchers in Germany found that a 25-minute sauna session is just as tiring as a moderate workout. In their study, participants’ heart rate and blood pressure rose while they were in the sauna and then dropped below their baseline levels afterward. The results were similar to those of people in the study who rode a stationary bike at a moderate intensity. Essentially, the heat puts a bit of stress on your heart the same way that exercise does.
2. Saunas are good for your mental health.
If you’re bored of your usual self-care routine, spice it up with a trip to the sauna. “Our new research shows that sauna bathing improves cardiac autonomic nervous system balance, leading to an increase in vagal tone and decrease in sympathetic tone, and better heart rate variability,” says cardiologist Dr Jari Laukkanen. Essentially, this means that a sauna session can result in both body and mind relaxation. “Our studies also suggest a strong inverse association between frequent sauna bathing and the future risk of psychotic disorders,” he adds. “Using saunas may actually reduce the risk of mental disorders, but further studies are needed to confirm that.”
3. Saunas help keep blood pressure in check.
In a 2017 study conducted by Dr Laukkanen and his colleagues (published in the American Journal of Hypertension), men who went in a sauna 4 to 7 times a week had a 50 percent lower risk of developing high blood pressure compared to those who only made one trip to the sauna every week. There are a few reasons why: First, as your body temp rises in the sauna, your blood vessels open up. Doing this regularly helps the inside layer of your blood vessels function better, which can improve your overall blood pressure. Plus, you lose body fluid when you sweat in the sauna, which plays a role in blood pressure. To top it all off, the relaxation you feel after a sauna session can help your blood pressure as well.
4. Saunas boost your immune system.
Time in a sauna may be even more important during cold and flu season. A single 15-minute sauna session can raise your white blood cell, lymphocyte, neutrophil, and basophil counts - all signs of a stimulated immune system - according to a 2013 study done by researchers in Poland. The effects were even more enhanced among athletes. Researchers say the stress put on your body by the heat of the sauna gives your immune system a little jumpstart.
5. Saunas improve heart function.
When Dr Laukkanen and other researchers followed up with Finnish men 20 years after baseline health data was collected, they found that the more often that study participants went in a sauna and the more time they spent there, the less likely they were to have died of a heart attack or heart disease during that time period. The study was published in 2015 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Regular sauna bathing may improve heart health by strengthening blood vessel dilatation, reducing arterial stiffness, improving the regulation of the autonomic nervous system, and lowering systemic blood pressure, according to Dr Laukkanen.
6. Saunas lower your risk of stroke.
Men and women who had 4 to 7 sauna sessions every week were 61 percent less likely to have a stroke than those who only went in a sauna once a week, according to a 2018 study by Dr Lauukkanen and colleagues published in the journal Neurology. The link was still there even when they controlled for stroke risk factors like diabetes, body mass index, alcohol consumption, and physical activity. The researchers aren’t sure exactly why this is, but it may be a combination of all of the reasons already mentioned.
7. Saunas are fun way to socialise.
While saunas may not be that popular in Australia, take a trip to Finland (really, do it!) and you’ll see how the sauna can facilitate a connection to other people. Finnish folks gather in saunas to catch up on news, gossip, and just hang out with one another. “We believe exercise, activities, hard work plus a sauna equals a good lifestyle,” says Dr Laukkanen. The health benefits of socialising abound so grab a friend and take a trip to the spa - it’s good for you!