Stepping into a sauna after an intense workout does more than just help you relax. Regular sauna use is shown to improve cardiovascular health, fight inflammation, increase muscle mass, and reduce the risk of cognitive disorders.
So, how long should you stay in a sauna to optimize its health benefits?
This article will tell you everything you need to know about sauna bathing, including how long you should stay in one and how often you should go to achieve maximum benefits.
- The evidence to support using a sauna after exercising is robust. In addition to aiding in relaxation, sauna bathing can improve heart health, endurance, and support muscle recovery.
- For maximum benefits, you’ll want to have at least three to four sauna sessions per week.
- Beginners should avoid using a sauna for over 5-10 minutes at a time until their body adjusts to the sauna heat. Once you are used to it, you can spend up to 20 minutes at a time in a sauna.
WET SAUNA VS DRY SAUNA
A dry sauna, also known as a Finnish sauna, is a log or wood-paneled room that was traditionally heated by wood fires. Today, saunas often use conventional heaters to radiate a very dry heat throughout the room. Compared to a wet sauna, or steam room, a dry sauna usually has higher temperatures and relatively low humidity (10-20%).
Temperatures in traditional dry sauna baths can reach up to 200°F. Today, modern saunas usually have several levels, with upper-level benches being more intense than lower-level ones.
In contrast, a wet sauna bath is more similar to a Turkish bath, which utilizes much higher humidity levels. The damp environment is usually created by a water-filled generator that pumps hot steam into a room. Temperatures in wet saunas are usually below 120°F with a humidity level of near 100%. Despite their lower temperatures, wet saunas often feel much hotter than dry saunas due to their high humidity levels.
DURATION AND TEMPERATURE FOR OPTIMAL BENEFITS
Traditional sauna bathing involves up to three sessions of heat exposure that can last anywhere from five to 20 minutes each. Sessions are often divided up with cooling breaks.
Ideally, to maximize the health benefits of the sauna, you’ll want your sessions to occur at least three to four times per week.
If you’re a beginner, it’s important to start with shorter sessions until your body gets adjusted to using a sauna. Initially, beginners should avoid using it for more than 5-10 minutes at a time. Once you become used to the sauna room, you can gradually increase the time spent inside to 15-20 minutes.
You should also wait at least ten minutes after an intense workout to allow your body to cool down.
Most studies suggest using saunas heated to at least 174°F for at least 20 minutes. While lower time frames are still beneficial, longer times are often associated with more significant benefits.
Since a sauna produces extreme heat, it may lead to low blood pressure causing you to feel lightheaded or dizzy.
Because everyone responds differently to heat, it’s important to always listen to your body. You should end your session if you experience dizziness or become too uncomfortable. If you continue to stay in the sauna after feeling unwell it can eventually lead to a heat stroke.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF SAUNAS
Sauna bathing often helps users unwind and relax. In fact, this bathing ritual has been performed in Finland for thousands of years to soothe achy muscles and support overall wellbeing. Over the years, studies have shown many more sauna health benefits beyond relaxation.
Specific benefits include improvements in:
- Athletic Performance
- Cardiovascular Health
- Cognitive Health
The hot steam from a sauna produces something called heat stress on your body. Regular heat stress from a sauna can improve athletic performance by increasing endurance and supporting muscle growth and maintenance.
For example, one small study looked at the effects of sauna bathing on six male distance runners. Participants sat in the sauna for 30 minutes twice a week after training sessions for three weeks. Researchers found a significant increase of 32% in the time it took participants to run to exhaustion after the period of sauna bathing.
The researchers also noticed increased red blood cell volume, which can lead to improvements in running endurance and speed.
Using a sauna elicits mild hyperthermia, which, according to one study, can increase the production of heat shock proteins, repair damaged proteins in our body, and reduce oxidative damage. Researchers also found that heat therapy can also aid in muscle growth.
Additionally, an older study found that sauna exposure can increase growth hormone levels.
Although bathing in a sauna shouldn’t take the place of physical activity, experts believe regular sauna use can benefit your heart and blood vessels in ways comparable to exercise.
During hotter sessions, a person’s heart rate may increase up to 150 beats per minute (BPM), which is similar to that of moderate-intensity exercise.
One study involving 19 healthy adults compared cardiac responses of a 25-minute sauna session to that of moderate-intensity exercise. Researchers found cardiovascular responses were very similar between the two. Interestingly, participants' responses were very similar, with heart rate and blood pressure increasing immediately in both scenarios. They also both steadily declined after the sessions were over.
Similar to exercise, a sauna session can also keep blood pressure in check and improve endothelial function.
INFLAMMATION AND MUSCLE SORENESS
A sauna session can help reduce inflammation by modulating markers of inflammation throughout the body.
For example, one study found that frequent sauna bathing can reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) blood levels, which is a marker of systemic inflammation.
Another study involving 22 males who received two 15-minute sauna sessions at 208°F separated by a five-minute cold shower found that the men’s IL-10, or anti-inflammatory protein levels, increased after sessions.
Other small studies suggest that using a far-infrared sauna can also increase blood flow and ease muscle soreness and tension in the joints in people with chronic diseases like arthritis.
Infrared saunas operate at a lower temperature, focusing on directly heating your body, whereas a traditional sauna heats the air around you.
Sitting in a sauna regularly is known to improve blood flow throughout the body. A healthy cognitive function relies on adequate blood flow to the brain. Additionally, the heat stress from a sauna is enough to increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production, which promotes the growth of new neurons in the brain and protects healthy brain cells. BDNF is also active in areas that help with learning, memory, and overall mood.
One large study of 2,315 Finnish men found that men who used a sauna four to seven times per week had a 65% decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s diseases compared to those who only used it once per week.
Because the temperature in a sauna can reach 200°F, you can become dehydrated if you aren’t prepared. Although sweat rates vary from person to person, the average person loses 1.1 pounds, or 0.5 kilograms, of sweat during a single sauna session.
Along with fluid losses, a person also will lose electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride.
If you don’t prepare and drink plenty of water, it can lead to dehydration, fatigue, and muscle cramps. To ensure electrolytes are repleted, you should consume electrolyte-rich foods or drink an electrolyte replacement drink after your session.
The longer you stay in, the more at risk for dehydration you’ll be, so it is important to not overdo it at first. Sessions should be limited to 20 minutes.
Additionally, if you’re using a public sauna, you’ll also want to shower beforehand out of courtesy, know the rules, and bring a towel to sit on.
Using a sauna offers many health benefits. In fact, it may be just what you need to help you recover and maximize athletic performance. Although saunas are generally considered low risk and safe, staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water before sessions is important. Because you’ll also sweat out electrolytes, you should also drink an electrolyte replacement beverage or eat electrolyte-rich foods after your session.
Be sure to listen to your body. You may not be able to stay as long as you planned during every session. If your body tells you that it cannot tolerate any more heat, it’s more than likely time to abort the session.
Always discuss any questions or concerns with trained staff on hand. They can help guide you and let you know what to expect.