Many gym memberships come with a perk that is seldom used: sauna. Tucked away at the back of the locker room in a gym, the hot sauna room doesn’t see too many visitors, perhaps because the idea of sweating voluntarily without a good workout might seem silly to some, while to others it may be a luxury offering nothing more than relaxation of the body. Some might even see it as useless and time-consuming.
A sauna bath, however, comes with many benefits. For one, it can help in weight management. “The heat in a sauna room can increase the pulse rate by about 30%, allowing the heart to nearly double the amount of blood it pumps every minute. Such cardiovascular changes are comparable to the training effects of moderate physical exercise,” says Viveka Kumar, director of the cath lab at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Saket, New Delhi.
A study of 2,300 men for about two decades reached similar conclusions. The experiment, led by Steve Faulkner of the Loughborough University in the UK, compared the benefits of a long, hot bath with an hour of hard pedalling. The yet-to-be published study found that having a hot bath or a sauna (at a toasty 40 degrees Celsius) for an hour burnt 140 calories which, though not comparable to the caloric burn of cycling for 60 minutes (640 calories), was equivalent to a 30-minute brisk walk.
“That doesn’t mean you forget exercising and just stick to saunas. Everything—diet, exercise, good sleep and sauna bath thrice a week (10-15 minutes each)—together help in weight management,” says Mumbai-based health expert Mickey Mehta.
Sauna versus steam
In India, steam rooms are more popular than saunas, though both work on the same principle—to make the body sweat. “They are different in terms of set-up. A steam room (usually made of glass) has an external steam generator which lets out steam inside the room through a nozzle. The temperature is around 40 degrees Celsius and the humidity, 100%. A sauna room (made of wood) has an internal stove that generates heat of up to 70 degrees Celsius (they can be both dry and moist),” says Mehta.
Both sauna and steam increase blood circulation to the surface of the skin and induce sweating, which detoxifies and cleanses the skin. “About 99% of what the sweat brings to the surface is water, the rest is toxins (heavy metals from pollution). This cleansing helps treat skin diseases like psoriasis,” says Naresh Jain, consultant dermatologist at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgaon, adjoining Delhi. “People with skin allergies, eczema and acne, or those with fever, flu, wounds or any kind of injury or illness, should stay away from these rooms because the moisture will only aggravate their problem,” he says.
The plus points of sauna go beyond the skin. Hot baths are good for people with rheumatic diseases, since the heat helps relax muscles, eases pain in the joints and improves joint mobility, according to a study published in the American Medical Journal Of Medicine in 2001. “That’s why many elderly people with joint problems are advised to stay in warmer areas during cold months,” says Dr Kumar.
A 2015 study, published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, found that the risk of dying from sudden cardiac arrest, heart disease and cardiovascular disease was up to 63% lower in men who took four-seven sauna baths (for 20 minutes) a week compared to those who took sauna baths just once a week.
Generally, saunas or steam rooms are safe for most people, except for those with angina, poorly controlled blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms or heart problems.
One should consult a doctor before taking saunas, says Dr Kumar, adding that one of the reasons people avoid saunas or steam rooms is hygiene. “Do ensure that cleanliness is taken care of when going for such baths. For instance, the floor should be dry, and the sitting area should be cleaned each time a person uses it. Otherwise, chances of fungal infections are very high,” he says.
Mehta also adds a note of caution: Never go inside a hot room on a full stomach. “How will you feel if you start running right after lunch?” he asks.
It is important to have two-four glasses of water after each session to regulate the body temperature. “Don’t take a sauna when you are unwell, and if you feel uneasy during a session, head out at that very moment,” says Dr Kumar.