6 Research-Backed Benefits to Sauna Post Workout

By PJ Nestler | Fri Mar 30 2018

While many of us instinctively gravitate to the sauna after a workout as a way to relax, recover from hard work or simply indulge ourselves in something that feels good, we may be wondering, are saunas good for athletes? As it turns out, there are many benefits of sauna after a workout. For these reasons, it makes complete sense for both our bodies and our minds to crave a bit of sauna time.

Here are six ways that spending time in the sauna post workout is a good thing for us—and the science to back up each one.

1. Sauna Time Can Improve Longevity

Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015 tracked the heart health and sauna habits of 2,315 Finnish men over 20 years. The men with the lowest mortality rates were those who spent time in the sauna four to seven times per week. The men who frequented the sauna more often had a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.

Researchers believe these heart-protecting benefits come from the increased heart rate we experience while we’re in the sauna, which correlates with performing low- to moderate-intensity exercise.

2. Saunas Can Improve Endurance and Aerobic Capacity

There are two ways the sauna might help us when it comes to endurance training. A 2007 study done on male distance runners showed that regular sauna bathing increased the runners’ time to exhaustion by 32 percent. Plasma and red blood cell volumes also increased. Essentially, this shows that taking saunas can help us perform better by increasing our blood volume.

Additionally, it is believed that spending time in the sauna can help us improve our tolerance to heat. This means we’ll be better able to handle the natural increase in body temperature that comes with prolonged physical effort and exposure to heat while competing or performing.

3. Saunas Can Stimulate Muscle Growth

Taking a sauna can feel great on your sore muscles, but do saunas help muscle recovery? Research says they can! Heat therapy, or “hyperthermia,” has been shown to increase the production of “heat shock proteins,” which repair damaged proteins in our bodies and protect us against oxidative damage. The same study also showed an improvement in muscle growth after saunas. In short, sauna therapy may help reduce muscle breakdown and increase muscle building.

On top of that, a 1988 study showed an increase in growth hormone after exposure to the sauna, and a 2007 study showed that exposure to heat can increase insulin sensitivity, helping to build and maintain lean body mass and regulate sugar. If you aren’t hitting the sauna for muscle recovery, you should be! 

4. Saunas Can Be Good for the Brain

The benefits of saunas after a workout extend far beyond athletic performance. Spending time in the sauna causes the body to release more norepinephrine. Proper norepinephrine levels are believed to help protect us from many things, from Alzheimer’s to migraines.

Alongside norepinephrine, the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (also known as BDNF) also increases with both exercise and heat exposure. This is important, since research shows that BDNF is associated with the birth of new neurons and an increase in cognitive function.

5. Saunas Can Cleanse the Skin

It’s important for our skin to be healthy—not just for aesthetic reasons, but because it protects us from the environment and microbes and also helps regulate body temperature. Taking a sauna helps your skin clean itself and remove dead skin cells. Not only will your skin “breathe” better and protect you better, but it will look better, too.

On a related note, the heat of a sauna can trigger sebaceous glands, which are located on the scalp. The sebaceous glands release compounds that make hair appear shiny and healthy.

6. Saunas Post-Workout Can Boost the Immune System

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics examined the impact of traditional Finnish sauna bathing on the immune system. Research subjects included nine trained runners and nine non-athletes. 

After just one 15-minute session in the sauna, subjects showed increased levels of white blood cells. Interestingly, the athletes showed more improvement to their white blood cell count than the non-athletes did.

Explore the Many Benefits of Sauna After a Workout

Whether you have access to a traditional (Finnish) sauna or a modern infrared sauna, you can experience all these benefits and more by adding even a short session to your fitness regimen. It’s certainly worth a try, no matter if you’re taking a sauna for sore muscles or hope to give your immune system a boost. There may also be social benefits to sauna bathing if you are spending that time with others. And, since it’s almost guaranteed that a sauna will help you relieve stress, you’ll feel better in some way, no matter what! 

If you’re new to the sauna, remember to take it slowly. Don’t amp up the heat too high or too quickly, stand up slowly when your time is up and stay hydrated. If you have a history of health or heart troubles, check in with your doctor before prescribing yourself some time in the sauna.

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