February 22, 2023
Why regular sauna sessions will raise the heat on your fitness
The latest TikTok trend is as steamy as they come – but can 20 minutes in a sauna really reduce heart disease? We don our favourite towel to find out.
According to TikTok, spending just 20 minutes in a sauna each week can significantly reduce your risk of heart disease. It’s a trend with (bare) legs: Zac Efron, Kim K, Elle MacPherson and Lady Gaga are apparently huge adherents.
While it’s easy for rich celebs to tout the wellness benefits of such luxuries, do sauna sessions actually hold any benefit, or are rumours of its regenerative powers simply adding water to the coals?
Dr. Mike Hoaglin, medical director at Dr House, thinks this is more than a flash-in-the-pan online trend, explaining that saunas are just one form of whole body ‘thermotherapy’ and that exposure to heat has long been considered a traditional therapy in many cultures.
In short, not only are the benefits of dry heat exposure real, they’ve been around for much longer than a 15-second video.
What are these sauna benefits, then?
From Finnish-style wooden saunas to the Turkish Hammam and Russian Banya, Hoaglin explains that the traditional sauna exposes the body to heats of 80°C–100°C with 10-20 per cent humidity, and should be enjoyed for around five to 20 minutes at a time. Meanwhile, newer infrared saunas operate at temperatures of 45-60oC.
The majority of the research is around the former. The most often touted benefit is around ‘detoxification’ i.e. the belief that you can ‘sweat it out’ after a heavy night or extended period of sketchy diet. This is all relevant, but Hoaglin thinks the real benefits of a sauna lie in its ability to boost ‘Hormesis’ i.e. your body’s ability to deal with short-term stresses, like exercise. Exposure to heat and reduced oxygen in a sauna can boost this process, aiding with recovery and boosting your overall fitness (although we do not recommend doing burpees in your local sauna for extra benefit).
“Similarly, heat exposure puts the body to work not only on maintaining its core temperature but also activates certain protective mechanisms,” adds Hoaglin. In particular, saunas can help us repair the structural proteins in our bodies that become damaged through ageing. “Heat shock proteins are associated with reduced muscle atrophy, have a role in preventing Alzheimer's disease and are linked to increased longevity,” Hoagy explains.
In other words, saunas are pretty hot when it comes to helping the body navigate the daily stresses that contribute to our wear and tear. What’s more, studies indicate regular sauna exposure can indeed lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, boost your mental health, and aid chronic respiratory conditions.
Or more bluntly, your life might just depend on your getting a sauna installed in your garden shed.
When's optimal for a sauna session?
Much has been made about the health benefits of a hot bath being akin to that of a sauna. In fact, Harvard Health found that “of people who took baths less than twice a week, those who took baths nearly every day had a 28% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 26% lower risk of stroke”.
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(FYI, Hoaglin explains that when it comes to your fortnightly dip, “many of the same metabolic benefits may be appreciated with wet or dry heat. However, a downside with wet heat is that your body has less ability to regulate its temperature, since sweating becomes irrelevant. Higher temperatures will not be as tolerable for long and risk of heat-related illness may be higher.”)
Just like we wouldn’t presume to tell you when to take a bath, when you hit the sauna is also up to you. “When you use a sauna really depends on what your individual goals and preferences are,” Hoaglin explains. “Some people like to use heat to warm up before a workout, increasing circulation and loosening muscles. Others may appreciate the natural healing processes activated by heat to benefit recovery.”
The only slight point to note is that infrared light is thought to increase melatonin production and promote sleep, so if you’re running an infrared model, a pre-bed session could bestow extra benefits, while a pre-work session might see you nod off by noon.
Am I going to overdo it?
Like anything else, there are risks to heat exposure. Even if you’re a boxer trying to cut for a weigh-in, you need to be mindful of dehydration in the sauna. “You might lose about a pound of body water in one sauna session,” says Hoaglin, explaining that misuse can be “deadly”.
“Take it easy at first, no more than 5-10 minutes for starters. If your blood pressure tends to run low, be cautious of an increased risk of fainting spells,” he advises.