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Sauna After Workout: The Health and Weight Loss Benefits

by David Mack
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Sauna

What is a sauna?

Sauna: Health benefits, risks, and precautions

A sauna is typically a room heated to between 70° to 100° Celsius or 158° to 212° Fahrenheit.

Traditional Finnish saunas usually use dry heat, with a relative humidity that is often between 10 and 20 percent. In other sauna types, the moisture is higher. Turkish-style saunas, for example, involve a greater level of humidity.

A sauna use can raise the skin temperature to roughly 40° Celsius or 104° Fahrenheit.

As the skin temperature rises, heavy sweating also occurs. The heart rate rises as the body attempts to keep cool. It is not uncommon to lose about a pint of sweat while spending a short time in a sauna.

 

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Types of saunas

There are a few different types of saunas, but in general all saunas are rooms that are heated to temperatures between 150°F and 195°F (65°C to 90°C).

Finnish-style saunas are considered “dry,” while Turkish-style saunas have lots of steam. People typically spend around 15 to 30 minutes in a sauna, depending on how much heat they can tolerate.

The differences in saunas are in the methods used to produce heat. These are the most common types:

  • Wood burning: Wood-burning stoves are used to heat sauna rocks. Temperatures are high, but humidity is low.
  • Electrically heated sauna: An electric heater fixed to the floor or wall is used to heat the room. Temperatures are high, but humidity is low.
  • Steam rooms: These are also called “Turkish bath houses.” Temperatures are low and humidity is high, at 100 percent.
  • Infrared: Light waves from specialized lamps are used to heat your body without warming the room. The benefits are similar to more conventional saunas, but at much lower temperatures. Infrared saunas are usually around 140°F (60°C).

While the temperatures and humidity levels vary, the effect on the body is similar for all types of saunas.

Health benefits

In addition to being a relaxing way to end a workout, saunas do have some health benefits.

Spending time in the sauna might have a positive effect on heart health. Some research has shown that the high temperature exposure helps blood vessels expand, which helps improve circulation and lowers blood pressure.

“There are people who have chronic muscle and joint pain from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, etc. [Studies have] shown that saunas can help with pain and fatigue associated with those conditions,” says Dr. Ai Mukai, physical medicine and rehab specialist at Texas Orthopedics.

Dr. Mukai also says that some athletes use saunas to help with performance and endurance. “Muscle strength and power seem to increase after sauna use. If you’re looking to build strength and power, saunas can help with that.”

Weight loss benefits of using a sauna

The weight you lose from being in a sauna is water weight, which is not ideal. Being chronically dehydrated is not a good state for the body, so you want to make sure to replace this lost water weight as soon as possible. But being in the high heat does cause your heart rate to go up slightly, which may make you able to burn more calories sitting in a sauna than you would sitting at rest in normal temperatures. However, this effect is very small and will likely not have a great overall impact on total calories burned.

Dr. Mukai stresses balance when it comes to weight loss programs. Sauna use alone won’t help you lose weight, but it might be helpful when used as part of a healthy weight loss plan. “Overall, if you’re on a program where you’re working on both diet and exercise, the sauna can be a beneficial component to a holistic plan.”

Risks of using a sauna

All saunas expose your body to warm temperatures. When your body gets overheated, you sweat. Sweating causes you to lose fluids. You get dehydrated when you lose more fluid than you’re taking in. There’s a risk of getting dehydrated from being in any type of sauna.

When you factor in that you’ve already been sweating during a workout, you need to be especially careful.

“The biggest risk (of sauna use) is dehydration,” says Dr. Mukai. “Drink plenty of fluids. If you’re going to be sweating a lot, look into electrolyte drinks.”

According to Harvard Health Publications, the average person loses about a pint of sweat during a short time in the sauna. But you can prevent dehydration by drinking enough water before, during, and after your time in the sauna. This will help replace the fluids your body will lose while sweating.

Severe dehydration is a health emergency and needs medical attention.

To avoid dehydration, drink plenty of fluids and know these signs of mild to moderate dehydration:

  • dryness in the mouth
  • extreme thirst
  • headache
  • feeling dizzy
  • feeling lightheaded
  • not urinating as frequently or having very concentrated urine

Older adults and people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and heart failure are at a higher risk of becoming dehydrated. If you have an existing health condition, check with your doctor before using any type of sauna. Also, be sure to check with your doctor before using a sauna if you are pregnant, as it may not be recommended.

Next steps

Using the sauna after a workout can be helpful if it’s done carefully and responsibly. According to Dr. Mukai, you should ease yourself into sauna use. “I usually tell people to start with a shorter time and see how they feel right after, and then for the rest of the day.” Try starting with only five minutes. Build up if you feel comfortable.

Possible health benefits

Regardless of how a sauna is heated, or the humidity level, the effects on the body are similar.

When a person sits in a sauna, their heart rate increases and blood vessels widen. This increases circulation, in a similar way to low to moderate exercise depending on the duration of sauna use.

Heart rate may increase to 100-150 beats a minute while using a sauna. This may bring some health benefits.

 

Easing pain

Increased circulation may help reduce muscle soreness, improve joint movement, and ease arthritis pain.

Reducing stress levels

As the heat in a sauna improves circulation, it may also promote relaxation. This can improve feelings of well-being.

Improving cardiovascular health

The reduction in stress levels when using a sauna may be linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular events.

One study, conducted in Finland, followed 2,315 men ages 42 to 60 over the course of 20 years. Findings suggested that people who use a sauna may have a lower riskTrusted Source of dying from cardiovascular disease.

Of the participants in the study, a total of 878 died from cardiovascular disease, coronary artery disease, or sudden cardiac death. Participants were categorized by how often they used a sauna, including once a week, two to three times a week, and four to seven times a week.

After adjusting for cardiovascular risk factors, increased sauna use was linked with a reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular-related diseases.

Participants who used the sauna two to three times a week were 22 percent less likely to experience sudden cardiac death than those who only used it once a week. Those who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 63 percent less likely to experience sudden cardiac death and 50 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than those who only used a sauna once a week.

More research is needed to find out if there is a definite link between sauna use and a decrease in deaths from heart disease.

Sauna use may also be associated with lower blood pressure and enhanced heart function.

While studies may be promising, sauna use should not replace an exercise program to keep the heart healthy. There is more evidence to support the benefits of regular exercise.

Skin problems

A dry sauna dries the skin during use. Some people with psoriasis may findTrusted Source that their symptoms reduce while using a sauna, but those with atopic dermatitis may find that it worsens.

Asthma

People with asthma may find relief from some symptoms as a result of using a sauna. May help open airways, loosen phlegm, and reduce stress.

Lower risk of Alzheimer’s?

In 2016, researchers from Finland published findings of a 20-year study that linked use with a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The study involved 2,315 healthy men aged from 42 to 60 years.

Those who used 2 to 3 times per week were 22 percent less likely to get dementia and 20 percent less likely to get Alzheimer’s than than those who did not use a sauna. Those who used four to seven times a week were 66 percent less likely to get dementia and 65 percent less likely to get Alzheimer’s than those who used a sauna once a week.

However, the results do not prove that a sauna causes the reduction in risk. It may be that people with dementia do not use a sauna. More research is needed to to confirm these findings.

Health risks and precautions

Moderate use of a sauna appears to be safe for most people. However, a person with cardiovascular disease should speak to a doctor first.

Blood pressure risks

Switching between the heat and cold water in a swimming pool is not advisableTrusted Source, as it can raise blood pressure.

A sauna use may also cause blood pressure to fall, so people with low blood pressure should talk to their doctor to make sure sauna use is safe.

People who have recently had a heart attack should also talk to their doctor first.

 

Dehydration risk

Dehydration can result from fluid loss while sweating. People with certain conditions, such as kidney disease, may be at a higher risk of dehydration.

The increased temperatures can also lead to dizziness and nausea in some people.

Precautions

To avoid any negative health effects, the following precautions are also advised:

Avoid alcohol: Alcohol increases the riskTrusted Source of dehydration, hypotension, arrhythmia, and sudden death.

A year-long studies of people in Finland who experienced sudden death showed that in 1.8 percent of cases, the person had had a sauna within the last 3 hours, and in 1.7 percent of cases, they had done so in the last 24 hours. Many of these had consumed alcohol.

Limit time spent in a sauna: Do not spend more than 20 minutes at a time in a sauna. First-time users should spend a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes. As they get used to the heat, they can slowly increase the time to about 20 minutes.

Drink plenty of water: Whatever type of sauna a person uses, it is important to replace the fluids lost from sweating. People should drink about two to four glasses of water after using a sauna.

Avoid sauna use if ill: People who are ill should also wait until they recover before using a sauna. Women who are pregnant or those with certain medical conditions, such as low blood pressure, should ask their doctor before sauna use.

Supervise children: Children aged 6 and above are safe to use a sauna, but should be supervised when doing so. They should spend no longer than 15 minutes in there at one time.

 

Far-infarared saunas: Do they work?

Far-infrared saunas (FIRS) have been recommended for people with mobility problems and health issues that make it difficult for them to be in the high temperatures normally found in a sauna.

A review of studies found that the benefits of FIRS may possibly includeTrusted Source:

  • improvements in some types of high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, and cardiovascular problems
  • increase in exercise tolerance
  • reduction in oxidative stress, chronic pain, and chronic fatigue

Data regarding weight loss and blood glucose levels was inconsistent.

However, the researchers note that the evidence is limited by issues such as small sample size, short duration, and the fact that the same core research group carried out many of the studies.

Health myths

There may be some potential health benefits to spending time, but there are also some myths.

False: Sweating removes toxins

One is that sweating can remove toxins from the body. It’s true that sweating occurs during use, but there is no scientific research that proves sweating detoxifies the body. Toxins such as alcohol, mercury, and aluminum are mainly removed by the kidneys, liver, and intestines.

False: Sauna use aids weight loss

Another myth about the use is that it leads to weight loss. It is possible to lose about a pound after using a sauna, but weight loss is due to fluid loss, not fat. The weight will be replaced as soon as a person eats or drinks something.

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