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Disclaimer: the information shared in this article is meant to be just that — information. It is not meant as a stand-in for medical advice. Complications from sauna use and other forms of hyperthermic conditioning can and do happen unless protocols are correctly modified to meet the needs of the individual. Before using a sauna, consult with your primary care provider first.
What do you think of when you think about saunas?
Perhaps you think they’re just for people who have the time to luxuriate and treat themselves. Maybe you think of them more like fancy torture chambers, only useful for people who have a twisted enjoyment out of getting super hot and sweaty.
Or, maybe you’re not really sure what to think about them.
In fact, regular sauna use is not just for spa-goers and gluttons for punishment. A growing number of scientific studies (both on animal models as well as humans) show that using a sauna — a form of hyperthermic conditioning — is actually good for your health, brain, and even your fitness level.
Wondering how? Here’s a summary of some of the key points from the research that explain how acclimating yourself to heat through regular sauna use can do wonders for your mind, body, and performance.
3 Benefits of Regular Sauna Use
1. It can improve your aerobic capacity (endurance).
Sitting in a hot sauna triggers a variety of physical changes in your body that can improve your endurance. How? The theory goes that by improving your tolerance to heat, you’ll be better equipped to handle the increase in body temperature that normally occurs during long-distance running or any other sort of cardio workout.
Specifically, here are a few ways that heat acclimation helps build your cardio:
- Lowers heart rate
- Keeps your body temperature lower during workouts
- Increases your body’s “thermoregulatory control” by raising your sweat sensitivity and sweat rate (since sweating helps you control your body temp)
- Increases blood flow to muscles (muscle perfusion) and other connective tissues and organs (including the skin, brain, and heart)
- Reduces how quickly your muscles use glycogen (fuel) due to improved muscle perfusion, thus helping you last longer during your workouts
- Increases the efficiency with which oxygen is transported to your muscles
- Increases red blood cell count
2. It helps stimulate muscle growth.
Subjecting your body to high temperatures can actually help your muscles get stronger. Yes, you need to still lift weights and challenge yourself in the gym, but post-workout sauna use can facilitate further gains through a variety of specific methods:
- Reduces the amount of protein breakdown, thus increasing net protein synthesis (protein and its composite amino acids are critical for building muscle)
- Induces the production of compounds known as heat shock proteins, which help repair damaged proteins and protect against free radicals (which cause oxidative damage that impairs and prematurely ages proteins, genes, and other molecules in your body—sort of like what happens when a bike starts to rust); regular sauna use also increases the amount of heat shock proteins that are later produced during exercise, as well)
- Stimulates your body’s natural production of human growth hormone
- Increases your insulin sensitivity, which helps you maintain lean body mass and promotes improved protein building (the hormone insulin is involved in both blood sugar regulation and protein metabolism)
Besides helping you get stronger faster, the ability of hyperthermic conditioning to promote muscle growth can also help someone who is recovering from a musculoskeletal injury, such has a broken bone or muscle strain, which has forced them to be temporarily immobile (immobility can quickly lead to muscle wasting and weakness).
Getting used to sitting in a sauna may even protect you against a medical emergency known as rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown and kidney damage caused by extreme muscle overuse).
That’s right — believe it or not, using a sauna may honestly help you get those strong, shapely muscles you’ve been working so hard for!
3. It enhances brain function by promoting the growth of new brain cells and nervous tissue.
Hyperthermic conditioning can promote something called neurogenesis, which is essentially the creation of new nervous tissue and brain cells. Here’s how:
- Increases the release of the neurotransmitter norepinenephrine (which helps your focus and attention)
- Increases the production of the hormone prolactin, which helps to repair damaged neurons
- Increases the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which leads to the growth of new brain cells (improving everything from your memory to your mood)
- Increases the production of a neuropeptide called dynorphin, which helps you become more sensitive to endorphins (the pain-masking hormones responsible for the so-called “runner’s high” experienced during a tough workout or even a sauna session)
How to Use a Sauna
Whether you’re completely new to working out or a veteran gym-goer, it’s clear that regular sauna use can be good for your health and well-being. To get the most out of your sauna sessions and to make sure you’re using the sauna safely, be sure to keep these few tips in mind:
- Always check with your doctor first before using a sauna.
- Don’t use a sauna alone nor while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Don’t use a sauna while pregnant. If you have a medical condition, be sure to ask your doctor if heat exposure is safe for you.
- If you’re healthy enough to use a sauna, aim to use one anywhere from 2 to 4 times per week for 20-30 minutes. Research shows that this prescription seems to be a sufficient frequency for eliciting the healthy benefits. If possible, use a sauna that is heated to at least 176° F (steam rooms do not get as hot so may not be quite as effective).
- Feel free to use the sauna after your gym session; some studies even shown that this post-workout window is the best time for hyperthermic conditioning. That said, you can use saunas independently of your workouts (can we say rest day?) and either way you should drink extra water before and after your heat session to avoid dehydration.
More and more research shows that regular sauna use has the potential to improve your overall stress tolerance, increase your longevity, improve your body composition, and even maximize athletic performance. Whole body hyperthermia has even been shown to improve the effects of chemotherapy agents for people being treated for cancer.
Who knew that something so simple and “luxurious” as a sauna could actually be as beneficial to you as exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep.