Saunas are well known for their ability to help you relax and de-stress. The ambient heat and humidity soften your muscles and calm the mind. However, there are many other potential benefits of saunas for those who are active, including boosting workout recovery, reducing pain, aiding sleep, and more.
Although saunas aren't appropriate for everyone—and you should maintain caution when using one if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or are pregnant—there are many reasons to add sauna sessions to your wellness routine.
To find out more about the benefits of using a sauna, we asked orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gbolahan Okubadejo and functional nutritionist Skylar Buchanan. But first, Buchanan recommends using a sauna three to four times per week for about 30 minutes, but that may be too much for some women at first. "Start with a length of time that you can handle, making sure to listen to your body, and add a minute or two each week until you've worked up to three or four 30-minute sessions per week," she says.
Additionally, be sure to keep hydrated and drink two to four cool glasses of water post-sauna visit, and cool down gradually afterward.
Saunas can alleviate muscle soreness and tension, increasing post-workout recovery and helping you feel more prepared for your next workout.
"When a person works out vigorously, tiny tears can form in their muscles," says Okubadejo. "When these tears heal, the muscles grow and become stronger. The heat from a sauna increases blood circulation to the torn muscles and helps them repair themselves more quickly."
Alleviated Lower Back Pain
Saunas are a great addition to your routine if you're experiencing lower back pain. The heat from saunas penetrates muscles and ligaments in the lower back and opens up blood vessels. "As a result, blood can better circulate through the body and help loosen muscles from feeling tight and tense. This may temporarily alleviate lower back pain and allow people to move more freely," says Okubadejo.
"The heat and lack of distraction [in a sauna] can help those with anxiety and stress feel much calmer," says Okubadejo. "Sitting in a sauna for around 10-15 minutes has been shown to relieve stress and better a person’s mental well-being." Try meditating or focusing on self-awareness during your sauna session to increase the benefits.
Temporarily Increased Metabolism
"Sitting in a sauna can ramp up a person’s metabolism and cause them to burn more calories than usual while sedentary. The body works to cool itself from overheating and performs 'exercise' similar to cardio without the movement," says Okubadejo.
Unfortunately, this doesn't mean you can skip cardio and strength training. But combined with a regular exercise routine, sauna visits might have an impact on your daily calorie burn.
Saunas can increase circulation, which comes with many benefits. "Increased circulation helps with joint pain, mobility, and arthritis. When muscles receive increased oxygen levels, they can better repair themselves, and the body can decrease swelling and pain," says Okubadejo.
Lymphatic System Support
"By raising your core temperature and encouraging your body to sweat, you are supporting your body's attempts to rid itself of toxins and pathogens that are hiding in your lymph (a pale fluid beneath your skin)," says Buchanan.
Buchanan uses saunas with her clients to help open lymphatic drainage pathways and liver support. "By opening up this specific drainage pathway—your lymphatic system—via sweating, you are helping each of your other drainage pathways function optimally as well," she adds.
For maximum benefit, use a fascia blaster or foam roller to loosen lymphs right before your sauna sessions.
Leppäluoto, J., Tuominen, M., Väänänen, A., Karpakka, J., & Vuori, J. (1986). Some cardiovascular and metabolic effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta physiologica Scandinavica, 128(1), 77–81. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1716.1986.tb07952.x