Saunas are one of the trendiest devices in the health and wellness space. Maybe you’ve heard of the numerous benefits that saunas are purported to have from a fitness influencer. Or you’ve seen a tv show where fighters are stepping into saunas on fight week to shed their last remaining pounds.
We will cover the different types of sauna sessions and heat therapies commonly used, discuss their applications for weight loss, and examine their potential benefits.
Heat therapy is the use of warm temperatures for health and wellness benefits. Heat therapy involves exposing the body to high temperatures for a short period to raise the body’s core temperature and provoke a physiologic reaction. Heat therapy functions due to a biological process known as hormesis, which involves the body being lightly exposed to a stressor which initiates an adaptation in the body. Exercise and strength training also has a similar hermetic effect on the body. While the activity is stressful, our body’s adaptation to it has many beneficial effects.
- Finnish saunas: most of the research on heat therapy uses Finnish saunas. Temperatures in Finnish saunas range from 150-194 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Infrared saunas: these saunas use infrared heat to transmit heat to the skin. They’re a popular alternative to Finnish saunas and often require less space. Temperatures in infrared saunas range from 110-130 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Steam rooms: steam rooms transfer heat from the humidity and moisture of warm water. Temperatures in the steam room range from 110-115 degrees and generally have humidity levels of 100%.
- Whirlpool baths: whirlpool baths are tubs with jets that propel water. Temperatures in a whirlpool bath range from 98-110 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Sauna suits: waterproof suits designed to help people retain their body heat, moisture, and sweat. In 2013, the NCAA banned its athletes’ use of sauna suits.
- Warm cloths, pads, or blankets are wrapped around specific areas of the body to promote increased temperature and blood flow.
While saunas can help you temporarily lose water weight, it isn’t a sustainable strategy for losing weight. For sustainable weight loss, you’ll want to create a daily caloric deficit where you consume fewer calories than you burn daily. Much of the excess water lost during a sauna bath will likely be replenished during the day in individuals following their regular diet and hydration plans. During sauna baths, people typically reach their maximum sweat rate at approximately 15 minutes, with the water loss averaging about 0.5 kg or 1.1 lbs.  To put this in perspective, the Institute of Medicine recommends a fluid intake for sedentary adult females of 2.2 mL (about 4.8 lbs.) and 3000 ml (approximately 6.5 lbs.) for sedentary adult males. So, while traditional saunas can be an effective way to quickly drop some water weight before stepping on a scale, you’re likely to regain this weight once you start eating and drinking the foods you usually consume.
What are the Benefits of Saunas?
While heat therapy alone won’t lead to sustainable fat loss, they offer many potential health benefits that can make them a valuable part of your health routine.
- In one study, six weeks of exercise training in a sauna suit improved various cardiometabolic markers like body fat percentage, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and maximal oxygen update.
- A different study that also had subjects exercise in a sauna suit saw subjects in the sauna suit group significantly improve their maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) compared to the groups that just exercised alone. VO2 max is an important marker of aerobic fitness for endurance athletes. Unfortunately, as we age, our VO2 max levels decline each decade.
- A study examined the effects of heat therapy on eccentric exercise. Eccentric movements involve the lengthening of muscle fibers; examples include running downhill or lowering the barbell during a bench press. Eccentric training is associated with more significant muscle damage and soreness following a workout. The researchers noted improved recovery from eccentric exercise in the subjects that underwent heat therapy.
- A study compared the mechanisms of hot and cold therapies for recovery from musculoskeletal injuries. The scientists concluded that heat therapy provided significantly greater release from delayed onset muscle soreness following exercise than cold therapy.
- A systematic review of dry sauna bathing concluded that regular sauna dry bathing offers many potential health benefits. A separate review on sauna bathing reported that regular sauna use appeared to reduce mortality, protect against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, and preserve levels of muscle mass.
- Finally, a third review found that regular sauna bathing was linked to several health benefits, including reducing the risk of vascular and neurocognitive diseases and mortality. The researchers also linked regular sauna bathing with the amelioration (making something feel better) of conditions like arthritis, headaches, and the flu.
- Incorporating heat therapy into your routine, whether a dry sauna, sauna suits, or a whirlpool bath, can be a convenient and relaxing way to create a new healthy habit. Some practical tips you can follow if you are going to use heat therapy include
- Ease your way in by starting with relatively shorter exposure to heat therapy and gradually increasing your exposure time. Similarly, start by exposing yourself to hotter temperatures at the lower end range and then increase it as you build your tolerance.
- Be sure to hydrate before, during, and after your heat therapy sessions. Remember, as we mentioned earlier, the weight loss you’ll encounter during these heat therapy sessions is water weight, which isn’t a sustainable strategy for long-term weight loss. So instead, use heat therapy for metabolic and recovery benefits and hydrate your body so you can feel your best.
- Use heat therapy around the time of your workouts. This tip makes it easier for you to chain good habits and is easy to follow since most people likely have access to these high heat therapy modalities through their gyms.
- Using heat therapy before or during your workout (like a sauna suit) will increase your body temperature and can make your activity feel more challenging. Also, using heat therapy on a regular basis after your workout can help you jump-start your recovery process.
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