Next time you’re at the gym, don’t skip the sauna after your workout. Try not to think of it as an indulgence — though it is relaxing. Instead, see it as a smart decision for your heart health.
What is sauna bathing?
Saunas have been around for thousands of years. Sauna bathing is a form of heat therapy that takes place in a room heated by burning wood, electricity or special infrared light waves. A sauna may reach temperatures between 158 and 212 Fahrenheit. It’s considered dry heat — the relative humidity in a typical sauna tends to stay between 10% and 20%.
Many people sit in saunas for relaxation and general wellness. But experts believe sauna bathing may offer benefits for:
- Chronic fatigue
- Cold symptoms
- Muscle soreness
Sauna and heart health
Sitting in a sauna may be particularly good for your heart. The heat can raise your skin temperature and cause heavy sweating — just a short time in the sauna can produce a pint of sweat. As your body attempts to keep cool, your heart rate increases and may reach 100-150 beats per minute.
Sauna bathing (and an increased heart rate) causes your blood vessels to open, increases circulation and reduces stress levels — like the effects of low or moderate exercise. As a result, sitting in a sauna also benefits:
Evidence over the past few decades shows that sauna bathing has an immediate positive effect on blood pressure. But for a bigger benefit, combine your sauna bathing with exercise. Recent research finds that using the sauna for 15 minutes after a workout, three times a week, results in a more significant improvement in blood pressure than exercise alone.
High blood cholesterol — a waxy substance in your cells — is a major risk factor for heart disease. Lowering your total blood cholesterol by 10% can decrease your risk of heart disease by 30%. The good news is that sweating can raise your good cholesterol levels (HDL) to improve your total cholesterol.
Exercise will certainly help you work up a sweat, and sauna bathing on its own can also reduce total cholesterol levels. But combining the two — sitting in a sauna after your workout — has a more significant effect on total cholesterol.
Cardiovascular respiratory fitness level
Cardiovascular respiratory fitness (CRF) is your body’s ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles and organs during physical activity. A higher CRF level can decrease your risk of heart disease and death.
Regular exercise is one way to improve CRF levels. But whether your CRF levels are high or low, research shows that sauna bathing following exercise is beneficial. If your CRF level is low, exercise followed by 15 minutes in the sauna improves CRF more than exercise alone. If your CRF level is high, adding sauna bathing to your workout routine can reduce your risk of heart-related death, including sudden cardiac death.
Risk of death from heart-related disease
Heart disease causes one out of every five deaths in the United States. And sudden cardiac death (SCD) often has no warning signs. Research shows that sauna bathing may be able to help lower your risk of heart disease. One study followed 2,300 sauna bathers for 20 years and found that the participants who visited the sauna more frequently (four to seven times a week) had lower death rates from heart disease and stroke.
Using a sauna safely
Sauna bathing is relatively safe. But to avoid any unwanted health issues related to sauna use, remember to:
- Drink a lot of water before, during and after sauna use to avoid dehydration and replace the fluids lost.
- Limit sauna sessions to 20 minutes, with new sauna bathers starting with shorter sessions (five to 10 minutes) and building up to 20 minutes.
- Avoid alcohol before or during sauna bathing because it increases the risk of dehydration.
Talk to your primary care physician (PCP) before using a sauna if you are pregnant or have low blood pressure — sauna bathing can cause blood pressure to fall.