Next time you’re feeling a little blah about the idea of working out, consider hitting the gym, bypassing the machines, and just sitting in the sauna. According to new research recently published online in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, sitting in the sauna could protect you from disease just as well as exercise does.
In a long-term observational study, researchers compared weekly sauna use among 2,315 middle-aged men enrolled in the Finnish Kuopio Ischemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. (Saunas are kind of a big deal in Finland, both in gyms and in people’s homes — all but 12 men in the study said they “sauna bathed” at least once per week.)
About 20 years later, researchers checked in on the participants: 190 participants had died of sudden cardiac death; 281 had died of coronary heart disease; 407 had died from cardiovascular disease, and 929 had died from other causes.
So why should you care about what happened to old Finnish men? Researchers found that, after adjusting the results for factors that could affect people’s health, like smoking, age, weight, fitness and activity levels, and preexisting health conditions, the more often men used a sauna, the lower their risk of developing a fatal disease — which means spending time in a sauna could potentially protect you too.
Specifically, those who sweated it out two to three times per week were 23 percent less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease. People who sauna-bathed four to seven times per week were 48 percent less likely to die of those heart diseases — and 40 percent less likely to die of any other causes than people who only sauna-bathed once per week.
The longer people spent in the heat during each sauna session — which ran from two- to 90-minutes(!) long — the greater their risk of survival. Guys who spent more than 19 minutes in the sauna were 52 percent less likely to suffer sudden cardiac death that men who sauna-bathed for less than 11 minutes at a time. (While longer sessions appear to be better, you never want to overdo it — overheating could kill you before heart disease, so step out after 20 minutes or so, or sooner if you feel light-headed or any other kind of discomfort.)
The researchers think saunas helped lower people’s disease risk because it affects the body like exercise: It increases your heart rate, improves your blood pressure, ups your lung capacity, and (obviously) makes you sweat. In other words: Torturing yourself on the treadmill and doing absolutely nothing in a sauna can produce similar effects.
Unfortunately this isn’t license to skip workouts altogether, says study co-author Dr. Jari Laukkanen, a cardiologist at the University of Eastern Finland. (You can’t build strength, lose body fat, or meet any other fitness goal if you don’t get off your butt.) That said, regular sauna use and exercise appear to support each other to promote better health and longevity, Dr. Laukkanen says. A post-workout sauna session can help you relax, which can benefit your cardiovascular system even more, he adds.
It’s important to note that because this study was purely observational and only included men, it doesn’t prove that saunas can save lives, let alone benefit women. Still, Dr. Laukkanen is hopeful: Because women have similar bodies and physiology, he says, they’re likely to respond to sauna heat and benefit as much as men. So if you want an excuse to get in a sauna this winter, now you have one. (Just be sure to OK it with your doctor first — especially if you’re on any kind of medication, since some drugs as harmless as allergy meds can mess with your body’s ability to regular heat.)
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