What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you hear the word sauna? Maybe it’s a group of naked people flogging themselves with branches in between swigs of home made vodka before plunging into an ice hole and hoping against hope a hungry walrus isn’t down there waiting to tuck into a tasty supper of half-seared human. Or maybe not.
Let the cares of the world melt away
But if you think the sauna is just a way to keep warm in northern countries cloaked in perpetual darkness, well, think again. And if in the heat of the moment you decide to give it a try, you won’t be disappointed. Because the sauna offers a whole host of purifying health benefits. Tension fades away. Muscles relax and unwind. The cares of the world evaporate. And if that’s not enough to make you work up a sweat, here are five good reasons to make the sauna a regular feature in your fitness routine.
1. Saunas relieve stress
As many sauna lovers will agree, relieving stress is probably number one on the long list of benefits. First of all, you cocoon yourself from the hustle and bustle in a warm and quiet space with zero distractions from the outside world. The heat relaxes your muscles, improves your circulation and, even better, stimulates the release of endorphins – your body’s natural feelgood factor. Just lean back and feel your mind take a deep sigh of quiet satisfaction.
2. Saunas flush out toxins
As the old Finnish proverb goes, the sauna is the poor man’s pharmacy – and a deep sweat offers a number of proven health benefits. For a start, it helps to detoxify your body by getting rid of the lead, copper, zinc, nickel, mercury and chemicals you absorb from everyday life. Medical research also shows that saunas can fight colds and flu, with the heat helping your body to produce more of the white blood cells that kill viruses. Add a few drops of Olbas Oil to the water bucket in the corner and you can say goodbye to sinus congestion too.
3. Saunas relax muscles and soothe joints
By increasing circulation, raising body temperature and reducing lactic acid levels, saunas accelerate your natural healing process and help your body fight aches and pains. Those endorphins we mentioned earlier? They can have a mild, tranquilising-esque effect that eases sore muscles, as well as pepping you up for the rest of the day for good measure.
4. Saunas cleanses the skin
Saunas represent one of the oldest methods there is of cleansing the skin. In old Finnish writings you’ll even find them referred to as a fountain of youth. In the dry heat your dead cells are flushed away and replaced to maintain your skin in good condition. Sweating also cleanses the pores and rinses bacteria out of the epidermal layer and sweat ducts. This has been shown to improve the capillary circulation and make your skin look smoother and softer.
5. Saunas burn calories
OK, so ignore the more outlandish claims that your typical sauna is the last word in weight loss. Even so, saunas can play their part in burning calories. Somebody in average condition can easily sweat off 500 grams in a single 30-minute session, consuming nearly 300 calories in the process (Source: U.S. Army medical research, Ward Dean, M.D.). Needless to say, that number will depend on a range of factors from your body composition, sex, and age to the temperature and the amount of time you spend in the heat. Just don’t overdo it and leave the skipping rope outside for now.
Advice for first timers
First of all, the hygiene factor. Wear flip-flops, sit on a towel, and rinse off with a lukewarm shower before and after. The first time you take a sauna you may want to leave after a few minutes before your blood starts to boil. Then as you get more used to the heat, you can build up the duration – but cap it at 15 minutes. Go out, cool off with a shower, then give it another 10 minutes if you want.
It’s vital to stay hydrated, so drink two to four glasses of water afterward and avoid alcohol, especially that home made vodka we’ve already mentioned. If you start to feel lightheaded or unwell, leave and sit down for a few minutes. And whatever you do, mind the walrus.