Taking care of your body after a workout can be just as important as what you do during. Recovery is not only therapeutic after strenuous activity, but also necessary to building muscle strength and achieving positive results. Whether you have a ritual post-workout routine, or you’re new to the concept, consider adding a sauna to the mix for a range of potential health benefits.
Types of Saunas
Before we jump into the benefits, it’s important to understand the different types of saunas. The traditional Finnish sauna is a dry sauna heated to 150 to 195 degrees (F), and the humidity is controlled by sprinkling water on the rocks in the heater. This is just one type of “sweat bathing,” and different cultures have developed distinct methods.
A wood-burning sauna is closest to the Finnish method, where wood is used to head the rocks and the room. An electrically-heated sauna uses electric heaters and may even have a remote control to regulate temperature. A smoke sauna isn’t as commonplace, with its big wood-burning stove filled with rocks. As the wood is burned, the smoke enters the room through the rocks, heating it. Once at the desired temperature, the smoke is ventilated, and the room is ready for use. A steam room, on the other hand, is not a sauna but rather a Turkish bath. The humidity level is at 100%, but the temperature tends to be slightly lower.
While all these methods provide the desired body warming effect, you’ll most likely find a traditional dry sauna or a steam room at your local gym. Although there is still a need for concrete scientific research, many users claim there are plenty of benefits to using the sauna.
The Benefits of Using a Sauna
1) Muscle Pain Relief
Working out creates micro-tears in the muscle that allows it to repair itself and, ultimately, grow. However, this exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD) is also the cause of soreness. Fortunately, the heat of a sauna post-workout can be therapeutic, reducing muscle tension which can lead to quicker recovery between workouts. According to the North American Sauna Society, sauna exposure also encourages a significant release of dopamine and endorphins, causing a sense of euphoria and natural pain relief.
2) Improved Blood Flow
The heat of the sauna expands blood vessels, naturally allowing increased blood flow to the body while in the warmed state. The improved blood flow after a half hour in the sauna has been shown to reduce both systolic and diastolic blood pressure and improve vascular response. Sauna use has also been linked to a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular disease .
3) Better Quality Of Sleep
Our bodies need sleep. During the shut-down, your body is busy restoring itself, “…growing muscle, repairing tissue and synthesizing hormones,” the National Sleep Foundation details on its website. Sauna-lovers have reported better sleep as a result of the endorphins released during a bathing session as well as the relaxation achieved after the increase and, then, drop in body temperature.
4) Boosted Immune Health
Sauna use may also have a positive impact on immune health as it relates to disease-fighting white blood cells. This study brought a group of athletes and untrained subjects together to test the sauna’s effects. After a 15-minute session, the results showed an increase in white blood cell, lymphocyte, neutrophil and basophil counts in the white blood cell profile for both groups. The athletes actually showed a higher increase than the untrained group, suggesting that a fitness regimen paired with sauna use packs an even greater punch.
5) Strengthened Lung Function
“Evidence suggests that sauna bathing improves lung function by improving vital capacity and volume, ventilation, and forced expiratory volume,” the Mayo Clinic details in a journal article on the benefits of sauna use.
So, what does this mean? Vital capacity refers to the maximum amount of air a person can expel from their lungs after maximum inhalation. Forced expiratory volume is the force at which air is expelled from the lungs, and ventilation is commonly known as breathing. With improvements on all fronts, you can increase the amount of oxygen in the body and reduce shortness of breath during exercise.
How to Safely Use a Sauna
Replenish liquids to avoid dehydration
While the sauna’s intense heat provides several benefits, it also comes with a few risks. It’s easy to get overheated and dehydrated. You’ll sweat a lot, and it’s evaporated quickly by the hot, dry air. Replenish body liquids and drink plenty of water before, during and after your session. If you’re just coming from an intense workout with a lot of sweating, consider an electrolyte drink to avoid dehydration.
Start off slow
Start by using the sauna gradually. If you’re a first-timer, begin with a 5- to 10-minute session and see how you feel. As with any exercise, listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel quite right, listen to that feeling. Pro users will see the most benefit from 10- to 20- minute sessions. But, again, if the length of time feels uncomfortable, end the sessions
Avoid eating too much close to a session
It’s best to avoid eating one to two hours before a sauna session to allow your body to get the most out of the experience. With a full stomach, blood will be focused on digestion more than full-body circulation. An empty stomach, however, may not be good for first-timers since you may feel weaker, so eat a light snack.
Before beginning any new health regimen, it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor. Saunas are completely safe for most but, for some, underlying conditions may lead to higher risks. Use the sauna safely and responsibly, and you’ll continue to reap the rewards for both your health and fitness performance.