You may have heard discussion around the benefits of the sauna and the steam room, but is one better for you than another? There is only so much time in the day to spend at the gym, so we want to be sure to get the most out of what we do in the least amount of time.
Saunas have been around for thousands of years. Finland has a sauna tradition that has been around for two thousand years strong, and many attribute their endurance and longevity to the time they spend in the sauna.
Saunas and steam rooms are touted to induce mental and physical relaxation, and both induce large amounts of sweating, which has health benefits such as releasing toxins from the body. So where does the difference lie?
Saunas are dry heat whereas steam rooms are at 100% humidity. One of the biggest differences has to do with temperature – when a room is humid we feel as though it is hotter than it actually is. Due to this, saunas are able to be kept at a much higher temperature than steam rooms. Saunas range from 160 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, wheres steam rooms are at 110 to 120.
In order to understand how these differences would lead to the best option of the two, we must first understand the benefits of both saunas and steam rooms.
Benefit 1: Increased blood flow
Blood vessels enlarge when your body temperature rises, allowing increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. After particularly vigorous exercise, try to get 15-30 minutes in the sauna or steam room to reap the benefits of this increased nutrient and oxygen delivery to your muscles. The increased blood flow allows an acceleration of tissue repair post workout. The faster you heal the better you feel and more able you are to take your next workout to a higher level.
Benefit 2: Increased metabolism and physical endurance
Increase the temperature and you will increase your metabolism, which is simply how quickly your body burns calories, due to this heat. Your body works harder to try and keep itself cool, thereby burning calories at a higher rate.
Your body works in a very common sense kind of way – imagine bending a credit card again and again. Eventually that credit card is going to have a bend in it. Along the same vein,there is something known as “hyperthermic conditioning.” In hyperthermic conditioning, you spend time after workouts in the sauna in order to help your body acclimated to the heat. During these periods your body’s metabolism increases. A higher metabolism has been linked to increased physical endurance.
A 2007 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that study participants who had two 30-minute sauna sessions per week for three weeks post workout increased the time it took them to run until exhaustion by 32%.
Benefit 3: Inflammation
Exposure to the high heat results in a release of noradrenaline, adrenaline and cortisol, which all have anti-inflammatory properties. This can help in mobility and pain, temporarily relieving stiffness post workout. Many people suffering with arthritis have reported relief after spending time in the sauna or steam room.
Benefit 4: Sweating
Sweating helps to lower blood pressure by secreting salts, detoxify by expelling toxins through our pores and helps to increase caloric expenditure.
A 2012 study in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health found that elevated mercury levels in the blood normalized post regular sauna use, leading to the suggestion by the authors that sweating could be considered as one way to help the body detoxify.
Even if you eat a completely healthy, natural, organic diet, we are still surrounded by environmental pollutants, so sweating may be one way to reverse some of the damage done by our mere waking up and getting things done daily.
Benefit 5: Mood
We are all familiar with the pleasant mood that you feel after going to the sauna or steam room. People report feeling less anxiety, increased relaxation, improved general mood and even increased alertness after trips to the sauna and steamroom. Why does this happen?
It has been found that a region of the brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus includes heat-sensitive neurons that will cause the release of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in our general wellbeing and happiness.
In a study of pilots with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, those who spent 15 minutes in a sauna once daily, fives days per week for four weeks were found to experience less fatigue, and the participants also reported an improvement in negative mood, anxiety and depression.
While all of these benefits will be experienced at some level in a sauna or a steam room, the majority of these benefits are likely to be experienced to a greater degree if exposed to a greater temperature. Blood flow and metabolism will both be boosted to a greater extent at the higher temperature of the sauna, leading to sauna as a logical choice post-workout.
If all you need to do to feel less anxious and more alert, recover more quickly from workouts, reduce inflammation and detoxify the body is spend 15-30 minutes in a sauna three times per week, how can a busy person not take this time to invest when you get so much in return?
Tip: Be sure not to stay in the sauna or steam room longer than recommended. Be sure not only to hydrate, but also to obtain plenty of electrolytes when you plan on spending time in the steam room or sauna.
- Livestrong.com: Sauna vs. Steam Room
- Livestrong.com: Benefits of Using a Steam Room After Workout
- coon, G. S., Hopkins, W. G., Mayhew, S. & Cotter, J. D. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. Journal of science and medicine in sport / Sports Medicine Australia 10, 259-262, doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009 (2007).
- Finnleo – Pure Sauna: Sauna and Arthritis
- Fitday.com: 3 benefits of sweating
- New Scientist: Saunas Could Heal Your Mood and Your Heart
- Effects of Waon therapy on chronic fatigue syndrome: a pilot study
- Go Ask Alice: Benefits of Sauna