Many fitness facilities and spas offer saunas to their members and customers. I’m sure you have heard the various proposed health benefits of regular sauna use including release of toxins, stress relief/relaxation, muscular recovery, and boosting the immune system. What you may be less familiar with are the benefits regarding cardiovascular health, which is the focus of this article.
Sauna bathing is a form of passive heat therapy. It is characterized by exposure to high environmental temperatures for brief periods of time. The recommended temperature and duration for sauna bathing ranges from 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit and 5-30 minutes, respectively (Laukkanen, 2018). The amount of time spent in a sauna will depend on the comfort and tolerance of the individual. Sauna use produces physiological responses similar to those experienced during moderate to high-intensity exercise, and can increase one’s heart rate from baseline up to 120-150 beats per minute (Laukkanen, 2018). However, since skeletal muscle is not active during sauna bathing, it should not be a replacement for exercise.
Sauna bathing has been a tradition in Finland for thousands of years. Saunas are easily accessible to everyone, as they are found in most Finnish homes, offices, and factories (Harvard Health publishing, 2015). Sauna bathing has become increasingly more popular in the United States and for good reason, researchers say.
One study followed 2,315 Finnish males over a period of approximately 18 years (Laukkanen, 2015). Participants were broken up into the following three groups: those who used a sauna one, two to three, and four to seven times per week. The researchers aimed to determine the association between duration and frequency of sauna bathing with the risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD), and all-cause mortality. They found that risk for all variables was lower in those using saunas more frequently. The risk of fatal CHD events was 23% lower in those sauna bathing 2-3 times per week and 48% lower in those sauna bathing 4-7 times per week. Findings for CVD risk were similar, and individual’s sauna bathing 4-7 times per week had a 40% reduction in all-cause mortality compared to those who sauna bathed only once per week.
In addition to decreased risk of SCD, CHD, CVD, and all-cause mortality; Finnish sauna bathing has resulted in positive changes in lipids such as total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), and triglycerides (Laukkanen, 2018). Reductions in blood pressure, C-Reactive Protein (a marker of inflammation that when elevated indicates increased risk for heart disease), and arterial stiffness have also been observed along with improved left ventricular ejection fraction (an indication of how well the heart is pumping blood to the body).
Additional research on sauna bathing still needs to be performed to give us a clearer picture of exactly why these benefits are being observed, but current research is promising and shows no real downside associated with sauna use. Regularly spending time in a sauna can potentially keep the heart healthy and extend life (Harvard Health Publishing, 2015), so why not work it into your weekly routine?
To avoid negative health effects while sauna bathing, please follow these precautions:
- Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration that can result from excessive sweating.
- Determine your tolerance- start with 5-10 minutes and gradually increase the time as you become more accustomed to the heat.
- Avoid sauna use or consult with your doctor first if you are pregnant or have low blood pressure.
Laukkanen, J. A., Laukkanen, T., & Kunutsor, S. K. (2018, August). Cardiovascular and other health benefits of sauna bathing: a review of the evidence. In Mayo clinic proceedings (Vol. 93, No. 8, pp. 1111-1121). Elsevier.
Laukkanen, T., Khan, H., Zaccardi, F., & Laukkanen, J. A. (2015). Association between sauna bathing and fatal cardiovascular and all-cause mortality events. JAMA internal medicine, 175(4), 542-548.
Merz, B. (2015, February 25). Sauna use linked to longer life, fewer fatal heart problems. Retrieved June 30, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/sauna-use-linked-longer-life-fewer-fatal-heart-problems-201502257755
About the Author:
Grace received her undergraduate degree in Exercise Science from Grove City College and her master’s degree in Exercise Science with a concentration in strength and conditioning from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. She has both designed and helped conduct research studies related to supplementation and performance, exercise and mood, and rest periods as they relate to gains in strength and power. Grace presented two of these research studies at the 2016 and 2017 Mid-Atlantic Regional Chapter meetings of the American College of Sports Medicine and is a published co-author in the Journal of Exercise and Nutrition. As a graduate assistant at Indiana University of Pennsylvania she assisted in teaching exercise physiology lab, provided personal training to local volunteer firefighters, and performed fitness-based exercise testing for Pennsylvania Police Academy candidates. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and spending time with her family.