Saunas are just as healthy as light workouts

January 18, 2018 - 06:20

Don’t feel like working out in a gym? Finnish researchers have a good suggestion for keeping in shape in the New Year. They assert say a half hour in a sauna is as good for the heart as a workout in a gym.

Finnish scientists now know more about what happens to our bodies after sweating in a sauna for thirty minutes. Among other things, blood pressure drops and heart rates rise. (Photo: Shutterstock/NTB scanpix)

Scientists at the University of Eastern Finland have spent recent years searching for health benefits of their most renowned national pastime, sauna bathing.

They find many. Earlier research has revealed that paying regular visits to a sauna lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, sudden cardiac death, Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The same research team from Finland has conducted an experiment, sending a total of 102 volunteers into saunas where the temperature was 73° C. The average age of these persons was 52 and all had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. 

Like a moderate workout

In the new study the medical scientists discovered more about what really occurs in the body when it sweats for a half hour in a sauna.

They tested the participants before they entered the steamy hot communal facilities. Then they measured their body temperatures, blood pressures and heart rates right afterwards.

The body temperatures of the sauna bathers rose by two degrees Celsius after a half hour in the intense heat. Their blood pressures had decreased and their blood vessels had become more elastic.

Their heart rates rose to levels akin to what can be achieved through moderate workouts.

Better two or three times a week

ScienceNordic’s Norwegian partner forskning.no has written about advantages of the sauna earlier.

Finnish researchers were thorough in a study from 2015 when they assessed what sauna sessions do for male mortality rates. They wished to see whether they could find differences between those who spent lots of time in saunas and those who just used them occasionally.

In the 1980s, 2,315 Finnish men were questioned about their sauna habits. Then, 21 years later, they looked at which men were still living and which were not. 

They found proportionally more deaths among those who used saunas once a week than among those who took the heat two or three times weekly.

Those who used saunas four to seven times a week had even lower chances of dying in this period.

The benefits were not limited to sudden cardiac deaths and heart attacks. The avid sauna users also lowered their risk of death from other causes.

The researchers indicated in 2015 that their finding could indicate that the high temperature raises pulse rates and thus improves blood pressure. 

Now this has been examined.

The editor of JAMA Internal Medicine, which published the article in 2015, also suggested the saunas can be health improvers because users relax very well in the heat and are often in good company.

Not for people with heart problems

People with heart disease have generally been advised to refrain from using saunas. 

Although there is now some research indicating advantages of frequent sessions in saunas for persons with minor heart problems, persons who have recently suffered heart attacks should shy away from them, according to Scandinavia’s largest health web page Norsk Helseinformatikk.

Not a detox

Sauna sessions are a central activity in Finnish culture, so it is not surprising that they are so keen on researching the effects.

Whatever benefits they uncover, saunas do not – contrary to what some spas and gyms claim – help at all in ridding the body of toxins.

It sounds feasible on the face of it, sweating cleanses and removes some of the unhealthy compounds that might be collecting in the body. But forskning.no wrote that this was just a myth back in 2014.

The main purpose of sweating is to keep the body temperature stable, not to rid the body of poisons. 

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no.

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling