Sitting inside a warm, dry sauna can be mentally and physically relaxing, not to mention a change from cooler outdoor temperatures. The tradition of sweat bathing is popular around the world. Whether steamy or dry, many cultures have found that working up a sweat is both relaxing and healthful.
The dry sauna is a Finnish custom. Saunas are typically kept between 176° F and 212° F with a dry humidity between 10 and 20 percent. In that hot, dry environment, the body’s temperature rises and profuse sweating begins. Because of the extreme heat, blood flow to the skin increases and blood flow to internal organs decreases. The heart rate also increases and blood pressure may go down.
“The metabolic changes to your body when you’re taking a sauna are similar to the changes while you exercise,” said Chelsea Mercado, the fitness manager at SamFit. “Your heart is pumping and you’re sweaty. You might feel a little bit tired after 15 minutes in the sauna and end up with a clear mind like you would after a good walk.”
In fact, spending time in the sauna is linked to many health benefits.
A literature review of several studies published in the American Journal of Medicine found that long-term sauna use could help lower blood pressure in those with hypertension. People with asthma or chronic bronchitis may have improved breathing. Those with pain from rheumatic diseases may have an improvement in their symptoms and mobility after they are in the sauna. And sauna use may reduce the number of colds people have. A study in the journal Age and Ageing also found that regular sauna bathing was linked to a lower incidence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Using the sauna at the gym in conjunction with regular exercise is a great way to boost your health efforts. A few minutes in the sauna before exercising can give muscles a little warm-up, but Mercado recommends saving the full session for after your workout.
“Because you sweat so much during a sauna, prolonged use right before you exercise can leave you dehydrated which reduces your physical performance,” she said. “Instead, try an active warm up like walking or jogging for five to 10 minutes to get muscles loose and ready for your workout, and then relax in the sauna when you’re finished exercising.”
If you’re looking for relief from aches and pains associated with your workout Mercado recommends icing or cold water baths which can reduce swelling, rather than a sauna. The heat can make inflammation worse.
Those with heart conditions and women who are pregnant should talk to their doctor before taking a sauna. Alcohol should always be avoided immediately before, during and after a sauna.
“People generally feel refreshed after using the sauna,” said Mercado. “Just drink two to four glasses of water afterward and don’t stay for too long — 20 minutes is usually enough.”
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