By Pure Matters
In a fitness world where the latest fad seldom lasts longer than a pair of running shoes, it’s refreshing to find practices that trace back centuries. When I hit the sauna after 30 minutes on the treadmill or some weight training, I’m recuperating just like the first Finns, who developed the post-workout treatment more than 1,000 years ago. The Romans, meanwhile, harnessed hot springs into steam rooms more than 2,000 years ago, which is truly ancient until you consider that the first instance of a recuperative soak in hot water likely originated when the first hot spring was discovered.
Saunas, steam rooms, and soaking in hot water have seen some innovation in the last few decades, from infra-red saunas to swimming pool-sized spas with high-powered massage jets. But the basic science and medicinal benefits have held constant.
Saunas -- rooms with exceptionally high, dry heat and low humidity -- top out at around 175-185 degrees. As you adjust to the temperate, your pulse rises by as much as 30 percent, increasing your blood circulation to aid muscle recuperation and improve overall flexibility. The persistent heat also fools your body into producing more white blood cells, boosting your immune system as it combats the perceived “fever.” Excessive sweating also purges your body of any toxins.
Steam rooms employ wet heat, with temperatures that max out at around 120 degrees (any hotter and the steam would be literally scalding). In addition to the benefits found in saunas, the moisture implicit in the steam helps with lung disorders (much like a humidifier clears congestion), and provides additional stimulation of the subcutaneous blood vessels to improved skin complexion. Due to the lower temperatures, steam rooms aren’t as beneficial in muscle recovery, however. And the perpetually wet conditions can become a breeding ground for bacteria in less hygienic gyms and spas.
Water, of course, is the biggest distinguishing factor with hot tubs. Topping at 104 degrees, they provide the same high-heat benefits found in saunas and steam rooms. But the water also makes you more buoyant, drastically reducing the stress on recuperating muscles and joints -- hence its common use in physical therapy. Studies have also shown that 30-minute sessions in hot tubs six days a week for three weeks can help with type 2 diabetes. And let’s not discount the ahhhh moment of aligning your sore spot with the jet massager.
Unless you’re a wrestler trying to make weight, the sauna, steam, or hot tub won’t shed pounds faster than a real workout. Any weight you lose through the excessive sweating is replenished when you rehydrate.
But weight loss isn’t the goal. And please, let’s forget about the hot tub scenes plaguing reality TV. When you’re in a steam room, sauna, or hot tub, you should rest and let the heat do its work. The 10 minutes I get in the sauna after a workout lets me slip into a meditative near-sleep while my muscles recuperate and my body sweats out the remaining toxins. My mind floats, concerns unravel. And when thoughts of the real world drift back, I take a brisk shower and I’m ready to re-enter the world, clear-headed from the workout, calm from the dry heat.
Soaks offer the widest variety of medicinal benefits, but the best post-workout treatment is largely defined by personal taste. I find steam rooms too slimy, but I dig saunas. Others may find those wood-walled rooms leave them feel like a dog trapped in a locked car on a sunny day. The best soaks I’ve had were after a long day of skiing -- particularly in Japan, at an onsen (public baths fed by natural hot springs) nestled in the snow-covered woodlands of Hokkaido, but a travel companion found the whole public nudity thing a bit…exposed.
Let your personal preference be your guide, and you’ll find that there’s a refreshing buffer between the workout and real life. It might even become another motivating factor in getting you to hit the gym.
- Nathan Borchelt