We all know that exercise is essential for cardiovascular health, but new research shows that an easy post-workout routine can protect your heart even further: using a sauna. After your sweat session, relax tired muscles (and get even sweatier!) in a Finnish-style sauna, which is usually around 80 degrees Celsius (about 175 degrees Fahrenheit) with relatively low humidity.
In the new study, the researchers found that, “adding 15 minutes of post-exercise sauna three times a week for eight weeks conferred additional benefits over just regular exercise,” says Earric Lee, an exercise physiologist at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland and lead author of the study.
Lee and his colleagues enrolled participants who lived sedentary lifestyles and weren’t frequent sauna users, then randomly assigned participants to one of three groups: continuing their current routine, exercising three times a week, or exercising three times a week with sauna bathing afterward.
After eight weeks, the people who exercised and used the sauna had greater improvements in maximal oxygen consumption (also known as VO2 max, which is a measurement of how much oxygen your body can use during exercise, and is an important part of aerobic fitness), as well as greater reductions in systolic blood pressure and cholesterol than people who exercised without sauna.
This study aligns with previous research showing that regular sauna use is associated with improved cardiovascular health, including a lower risk of stroke and dying from heart disease. However, it is important to note that the study only included 47 participants, and more research is needed to confirm the results and to determine what frequency and duration of sauna use is most beneficial.
Although experts don’t fully understand why sauna benefits heart health, previous research has found that heart rate and blood pressure actually increase during sauna use in a manner that’s similar to moderate exercise, suggesting that sauna use and exercise may improve heart health through similar mechanisms. Exercise has many other benefits though, so experts don’t recommend totally replacing exercise with sauna use.
How To Get Started With Sauna
If spending 15 minutes in a hot-as-heck room sounds like torture, it’s fine to start slow to get used to the experience. At the beginning of the study, researchers set the sauna temperature to 65 degrees Celsius (about 150 degrees Fahrenheit) and slowly increased it to 80 degrees Celsius (about 175 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the eight-week study. Although changing the temperature might not be an option if you’re at a public sauna, Lee says you can start by going once a week or by only using the sauna for a few minutes at a time, and you can work up to fifteen minutes at whatever pace is comfortable for you.
If you can’t take the heat of a traditional sauna, you can try an infrared sauna, which is generally a bit cooler. Although Lee’s study used a traditional Finnish sauna, other research groups in Japan have shown that infrared saunas may also have some cardiovascular health benefits.
Lee says it’s crucial to make sure you stay hydrated while using sauna. Drink two to four glasses of water per session to help replace the water you’ve lost through sweat. He says it’s also important to avoid alcohol before and during sauna use, and some experts even say it’s dangerous to use a sauna while hungover.
Although sauna use is generally safe (and infrared sauna use may even be helpful for some chronic heart failure patients under carefully controlled conditions), Lee says that people with heart conditions or other serious medical concerns should consult a doctor before sauna use.
There’s one more caveat: If you’re trying to conceive, you might want to think twice about sauna use as a small study found that it can temporarily lower sperm count and motility.