What you need to know:
- While using the sauna is beneficial to the cardiovascular system, it does not produce comprehensive benefits to the body the same way physical exercise does.
You enjoy regular sessions in the sauna because you feel great afterwards. Because of how it makes you feel, you believe it must be good for your physical wellbeing, especially since it allows you to sweat as though one doing physical exercise. Maybe you have since replaced physical exercise with going to the sauna for the same reason. But every so often you wonder if sauna could really be a substitute for exercise.
Dr Ntege Ssengendo, a sports doctor, says a sauna can be a great alternative to physical exercise, especially if a person is, for some reason, unable to exercise. For example, if one is disabled, he says, using the sauna regulary might help them achieve the benefits of going to the gym including sweating, burning calories, detoxing and even losing weight.
“Using the sauna is a great way to sweat. Sweating is beneficial because it helps boost your mood and shed toxins from your body. This helps reduce inflammation, purifies your blood, boosts circulation and helps you sleep better as well as lose weight,” Dr Ssengendo says.
A new study published in the journal, Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that a good sauna session is as beneficial to your heart in a similar way that a moderate-intensity exercise session does. According to the study, the heat exposure of the sauna produces a progressive increase in blood pressure and heart rate in the exact sequence that physical exercise does. But only that. After sauna, blood pressure and heart rate decrease as steadily as they do after jogging or riding a bicycle.
“Contrary to previous reports that suggested your blood pressure drops in a sauna, there is a continuous increase in blood pressure during the sauna session. That creates temporary effects on the body comparable to moderate physical exercise,” says the lead researcher on the study, says Dr Sascha Ketelhut of Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany.
He adds that the way blood pressure comes down after a sauna session is beneficial to the cardiovascular system, the same way it rises with exercises and falls when you are done working out. Both sauna and physical exercise “tone” your system by causing it to work harder for a short amount of time and then return back to a baseline level.
The question though is, can sauna be a lasting solution to lack of physical exercise? Can sauna cause physical fitness, for instance?
According to experts, while sauna is beneficial to the cardiovascular system, it does not produce comprehensive benefits to the body the same way physical exercise does.
While sauna is known to be good for the skin because sweating draws additional oxygen and nutrients to the skin's surface resulting in a healthier looking skin through skin cell rejuvenation, sauna promotes relaxation of the muscles instead of working them, growing them and toning them. Your skin will glow but you will not be ripped or toned.
“A sauna session is a physical strain, and its long term-positive effects for the heart are similar to sports activities,” says Ketelhut, adding that with no muscle activity, it will not be the same as doing exercise.
It also does not promote weight loss as physical exercise does. The study found that while sauna causes temporary weight loss due to the loss of great amounts of fluids through sweat, the weight will be regained as soon as you rehydrate.
While sauna is great for the cardiovascular system, the skin and in some cases, weight loss, it will not build muscles or tone them. Therefore, for those that cannot work out for some reason, sauna is the next best thing.
However, for those that are capable of exercising, or for those that want toned muscles, or a flat tummy, going to the sauna will not be enough.
About the study
The study used 19 healthy, adult volunteers and consisted of two parts. In the first part of the study, participants spent 25-minutes in a sauna at 93°C (199.4°F) with 13 percent humidity. Blood pressure and heart rate were measured both during the session and during a 20-minute rest period after the session. In the second part of the study, participants were asked to complete an exercise program on an exercise bike, during which their blood pressure and heart rate were measured.
The results, simply stated, showed that a sauna session is equivalent to a short, moderate workout. Both blood pressure and heart rate increased during the sauna session.
"Comparing the two conditions, the participants' blood pressure and heart rate reached the same levels during the sauna session as they did with a load of about 100 watts during the exercise test," Dr Sascha Ketelhut of Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, reported.