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The wellness world is fraught with debates, and one such topic is the use of saunas after a grueling workout session. While some advocate for the healing and soothing properties of a sauna, others caution against potential negatives. In this comprehensive exploration, we aim to untangle the facts, myths, and everything in between about post-exercise sauna use.
1. Understanding Saunas: More than Just Heat and Steam
Saunas are typically small rooms heated between 150°F and 195°F. While the Finnish-style saunas are “dry”, Turkish-style saunas are brimming with steam. People generally spend around 15 to 30 minutes in a sauna, depending on their heat tolerance.
There are several types of saunas, each differing in their heat production methods:
- Wood burning: These saunas use wood-burning stoves to heat sauna rocks. They have high temperatures but low humidity.
- Electrically heated sauna: Here, an electric heater is used to heat the room. Much like wood-burning saunas, these also have high temperatures but low humidity.
- Steam rooms: Also known as “Turkish bath houses”, these offer low temperatures and 100 percent humidity.
- Infrared: These use light waves from specialized lamps to heat your body without warming the room. The benefits are similar to conventional saunas, but the temperatures are lower, usually around 140°F.
Despite the differences in temperatures and humidity levels, the impact on the body is similar across all types of saunas.
2. The Science Behind Sauna Use: What Happens to Your Body?
According to a 2019 study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, the changes your heart undergoes in a sauna mirror those experienced during a short, moderate-intensity cardio workout.
“We see overall heart rate and core temperature increase, as well as improved blood pressure and redistribution of blood throughout the body’s tissues,” says Shawn M. Houck, D.P.T., a clinical specialist in sports physical therapy. These effects could potentially decrease your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
3. The Potential Benefits: Can Saunas Boost Workout Recovery?
Saunas are celebrated for their relaxing and stress-reducing properties. The warm, humid atmosphere can soften muscles and calm the mind. But are these the only benefits?
3.1. Cardiovascular Health
Research suggests that high-temperature exposure in a sauna can help blood vessels expand, thus improving circulation and lowering blood pressure. A 2015 JAMA Internal Medicine study found that men who used a sauna two to three times per week had a 27 percent lower risk of death from heart disease than those who used it only once a week.
However, it’s essential to consult your doctor before incorporating sauna sessions into your routine, particularly if you have underlying heart conditions.
3.2. Pain Reduction
“Saunas can help with pain and fatigue associated with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia,” says Dr. Ai Mukai, a physical medicine and rehab specialist.
3.3. Athletic Performance and Endurance
Some athletes use saunas to enhance their performance and endurance. According to Dr. Mukai, “Muscle strength and power seem to increase after sauna use. If you’re looking to build strength and power, saunas can help with that.”
4. The Backlash: Can Saunas Impede Post-Exercise Recovery?
While the benefits of saunas are well-documented, some studies suggest that post-exercise sauna sessions may hinder recovery and subsequent performance.
One such study published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance suggested that using a sauna after a workout could potentially strain the circulatory system, activate the sympathetic nervous system, and induce neurohormonal stress.
The researchers concluded that using a sauna adds physiological stress to the body, which could interfere with recovery from a workout. Therefore, it’s crucial to strike a balance between the benefits and potential drawbacks of sauna use.
5. Saunas and Weight Loss: Is there a Connection?
While saunas cause you to lose water weight due to sweating, this isn’t the ideal way to lose weight. Chronic dehydration can have detrimental effects on your body. Using a sauna increases your heart rate slightly, potentially leading to a slight increase in calorie burn. However, the effect is minimal and won’t significantly impact overall calorie burn.
“Sauna use alone won’t help you lose weight, but it might be helpful when used as part of a healthy weight loss plan,” says Dr. Mukai.
6. The Risks: Dehydration and More
The heated environment of saunas triggers sweating, leading to fluid loss and potential dehydration. This risk is heightened if you’ve already been sweating from a workout.
“The biggest risk (of sauna use) is dehydration,” warns Dr. Mukai. It’s crucial to stay adequately hydrated before, during, and after using a sauna. Dehydration can cause dry mouth, extreme thirst, headaches, dizziness, and concentrated urine.
Severe dehydration is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. Individuals with chronic conditions like diabetes, kidney disease, and heart failure are at a higher risk of dehydration. Pregnant individuals should also consult a doctor before using a sauna.
7. The Bottom Line: Saunas and Workout Recovery
While the soothing warmth of a sauna can feel therapeutic post-workout, it’s essential to approach sauna use with caution.
If you’re considering incorporating sauna sessions into your recovery routine, start with shorter sessions and gradually increase the duration, always prioritizing hydration and listening to your body’s signals.
Remember, saunas can offer numerous health benefits but also pose potential risks. Always consult a healthcare professional before making significant changes to your wellness routine. After all, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health and wellness.