A study published in the American Journal of Physiology this summer found that a combination of exercise and sauna use led to better cardiovascular outcomes than working out alone.
The Finnish research featured a randomized controlled trial of 48 people with cardiovascular disease risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and a family history of heart disease.
Participants were broken into three groups. The first group exercised and then used a sauna for 15 minutes, the second just exercised and the third was sedentary.
The study found that those who followed exercise with sauna bathing had lower systolic blood pressure, a decrease in cholesterol and better cardiorespiratory fitness levels.
The reason behind this is not fully known, but the research suggested that part of the reason for these outcomes is that combining exercise with heat can improve the heart’s ability to contract. Ongoing sauna use could also help the heart work more efficiently, it added.
Previous studies have found that sauna use can result in less stress, and stress is known to negatively impact a lot of things, including heart health.
Steam rooms, which are normally set at a lower temperature than saunas, also have heart health benefits, but they are less studied than saunas.
Many recent studies have looked at saunas’ benefits
The Finnish research is among a number of recent studies examining the tangible health benefits of regular sauna use, according to Dr. Peter Robinson, an assistant professor of cardiology at the UConn Health medical center in Connecticut.
“Folks are starting to do more comparison or randomized studies, mainly short-term, to see if this association is really coming from the sauna itself or is it just associated with a healthier lifestyle,” he said.
While there is currently no definitive evidence that saunas alone are the cause of these better outcomes, there is reason to believe that the combination of sauna use and exercise does in fact benefit cardiovascular health, Robinson said.
Studies are now aiming to find proof that medical experts can rely on.
It’s not news that sauna use and heart health may be linked
Earlier research has also pointed to a relationship between sauna use and better cardiovascular health, Robinson said.
Previous studies and meta-analyses have found that combining sauna bathing with exercise resulted in lower blood pressure, in addition to a possible connection to improved artery health through a metric called endothelial function, he continued.
“Those are two broad markers that we can measure directly in the short-medium term that often have long-term cardiovascular benefits,” he said.
But it’s important to remember a few things
Though Robinson said that people who take “sauna baths, especially the way they do them in Finland ... seem to be healthy and seem to live longer,” he wondered whether some of the benefits might come down to socioeconomic factors allowing for a healthier lifestyle.
A person who is able to afford regular sauna visits can also likely afford other things to better their health, such as nutritious food and necessary medicines. This is important to keep in mind as new studies discuss any impact on heart health.
Sauna baths are still far from the point where doctors can recommend them to patients as treatment, Robinson said, but “the more I’m reading about it, the more it does seem they are coming up with data that there could be a causation.”
In other words, as these studies continue to find connections between sauna use and heart health, it’s likely that direct, medically backed proof could emerge.
Sauna use may not be right for everyone
Many studies that focus on the health benefits of sauna bathing do not allow people with certain conditions — like low or high blood pressure — to take part, Robinson said.
So before adding sauna bathing to your routine, you should consider talking with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you.
If you are a healthy individual with no medical problems, you are probably OK to incorporate sauna bathing into your workout schedule, Robinson said.
Finally, remember that the Finnish study saw benefits among people who both exercised and used a sauna. Any heart health boosts related to saunas cannot replace the benefits of working out, Robinson stressed.