Finns are known for their ancient sauna habit, which dates back 10,000 years to the use of earthen pits. Nowadays their tradition is to toast themselves in a tent or small wooden cabinet, often followed by a jump in a frigid lake. Apparently, they’re on to something: New research indicates that regular saunas could be as healthful as regular exercise. Bonus: You don’t really have to do that frosty dip.
Study: The Mayo Clinic Proceedings recently published a paper titled “Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence.” The researchers conclude: “Emerging evidence suggests that sauna bathing may be linked to several health benefits, which include reduction in the risk of vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and neurocognitive diseases; nonvascular conditions such as pulmonary diseases; mortality; and amelioration of conditions such as arthritis, headache, and flu.”
Methods and results: A team of researchers (yes, from Finland) reviewed all existing studies on sauna bathing through February of this year. The studies typically included subjects who spent five to 20 minutes in a sauna heated to 175 to 210 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a swim, shower or return to room temperature. Sauna exposure raised subjects’ heart rates to 120 beats to 150 beats per minute and increased blood flow to the skin, much as moderate exercise does.
Several large sauna studies have determined that the practice is linked to lower blood pressure and decreased artery stiffness. In addition, subjects who visit a sauna four to seven times a week have 60 percent lower rates of heart disease and stroke than those who visit just once a week. “Sauna may be a new way to reduce cardiovascular risk,” says lead researcher Jari Laukkanen, a cardiologist and professor at the University of Eastern Finland. “It is a kind of third factor in addition to diet and exercise.”
Laukkanen himself enjoys a sauna six or seven times a week, often after exercising, combining two practices that have independent heart benefits, according to his research.
Next steps: Be aware of the risks. Saunas are superheated, and you don’t want to brush up against whatever device is providing the heat. Drinking water is fine but not alcohol; consumption of alcohol has led to sauna and post-sauna accidents. Lastly, while there’s little evidence associating a chilly plunge or shower with heart attack or arrhythmia, experts generally advise against a cold shock.
As with any exercise routine, start slow, with maybe just a few minutes of heat exposure for your first sauna. Increase sauna time gradually. In Finland, there are roughly as many saunas as there are homes. In the United States, saunas are far less common, but many gyms and YMCAs have them.