I used to think saunas were only for old, naked men at my gym. These men were onto something, little did I know.
You too should use the sauna after exercise for post-workout recovery, longevity, and better health. This will enhance the benefits you already are getting from exercise.
Use the Sauna for muscle hypertrophy & recovery
Sauna use is a great way to decompress after a workout, both mentally and physically.
Muscle and Joint Pain
The sauna is great for people with muscle and joint pain. Your muscles are inflamed, tired, sore, and tight after a workout. The sauna will help increase blood circulation, delivering oxygen to those depleted muscles.
It has been proven that sauna use significantly reduces pain and stiffness in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. Mayo Clinic research also shows that sauna bathing can help with arthritis, among other things.
There is another study on muscle damage from a wrist-workout. It shows that those who used the sauna immediately after a workout had significantly improved muscle recovery and reduced pain compared to those who didn’t.
The best time to use a sauna for recovery is right after a workout. Up to 24 hours still has benefits, luckily for people who workout in the mornings and use the sauna at night.
Sauna use for muscle hypertrophy
Maintaining muscle mass is a critical part of the recovery process. Muscle hypertrophy is the increase in the size of your muscles, like when you lift weights.
Muscle atrophy is the decrease in the size of your muscles, from lack of use. Think of when your arm is immobilized in a cast. Your arm is smaller and weaker when you take the cast off because of disuse.
Your body balances new protein synthesis and existing protein degradation when you build muscle. You produce new proteins to repair muscle damage caused by exercise. It opposes muscle protein breakdown.
The sauna helps repair your muscles through heat stress, enabling better recovery. Frequent sauna use leads to heat acclimation.
Heat acclimatization, or acclimation, is your body’s physical responses and overall ability to cope with heat exposure. Acclimatization refers to your body’s response in the natural environment, like a 100 degree day in Texas. Acclimation refers your body’s response in a controlled environment, like a sauna. Your body’s response is the same in both scenarios.
Heat acclimatization can reduce protein degradation by increasing heat shock proteins and releasing growth hormone, among other things.
Heat shock proteins (HSP) can prevent muscle damage and repair damaged proteins. This helps maintain muscle mass and improves your recovery.
A study showed that daily heat treatments applied to specific muscles, during 10 days of immobilization, prevented the loss of mitochondrial function. It also increased HSP levels and stopped muscle atrophy by 37%.
Using the sauna after exercise improves your cardio
Sauna use has a remarkably similar effect as exercise. You are improving your cardio by using the sauna, while you recover.
Your body produces more erythropoietin (EPO) when using the sauna. Many cyclists, and other endurance athletes, have been caught blood doping by taking EPO as a performance enhancing drug because it increases red blood cells. This increase in red blood cells helps deliver more oxygen to the working muscle cells, enabling them to operate more effectively and increasing performance.
One study measured distance runners performance when using the sauna after workouts. The runners did one 30-minute sauna session twice per week, after a workout. The participants increased their ability to run to exhaustion by 32% compared to prior.
These participants also increased their blood plasma volumes by 7% and red blood cells by 3%. The increase in plasma volume helps enable sweating and cooling of your body to prevent your body from overheating. The increase in red blood cells helps transport oxygen from lungs to your muscles and deliver carbon dioxide to your longs to breath out. These increase in both blood plasma and RBC’s help improve your performance.
There was another study of 20 middle-distance runners who showed an improvement in their VO2max and speed after doing a 20 minute sauna session after training. This was done three times per week over three weeks.
A 3rd study of 9 female athletes sat in a hot environment for 20 minutes per day, for 5 days. These women improved their cardiovascular and thermoregulatory conditions compared to prior to the study.
Using a sauna after workouts can improve your future cardio performance. This is especially powerful if you are older and not able to work out with the same intensity as your younger self.
Use the sauna for longevity
We all exercise to be healthier and hopefully live longer.
Did you know that heart disease is the number 1 cause of death in the US? 1 out of every 4 deaths are from cardiovascular disease (Source, CDC).
So how can using the sauna help?
There was a study conducted from 1984-1989 with 2315 Finnish men between the ages of 42-60. The results, over a follow-up for 20 years, were astounding.
Men who used the sauna 4-7x per week were 50% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Even the men who used the sauna 2-3x per week were able to reduce their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 27%.
The 4-7x sauna users were 63% less likely to die from sudden cardiac death compared to those using the sauna once per week. The 2-3x participants were 23% less likely.
Those who used the sauna 4-7x per week were 40% less likely to die from all-cause mortality than those who used the sauna once per week.
This is a very effective post-workout practice because sauna use has a very similar effect as exercise. You are able to get similar benefits while your body recovers. For a deeper dive (from an actual doctor), Dr. Rhonda Patrick has a great video about this.
This answers two frequently asked questions:
How long should you use the sauna?
In this same study, those who used the sauna for greater than 19 minutes had a 52% lower risk of sudden cardiac death.
Optimal use is about 20 minutes, followed by a cooling. The cooling can be a cold shower or cold plunge.
I wasn’t able to stay in the sauna for 20 minutes until I was heat adapted. It took me time to build up to that level. The best advice is to stay in the sauna as long as you can, but not to overdo it. You will build up heat acclimation as you use the sauna more frequently. More on that later.
How often should you use the sauna?
The results clearly indicate the more frequently you use the sauna, the better. 4-7x per week is ideal. That may not be possible due to whatever your situation is, so just get in as much as possible. You will still benefit from 2-3x per week.
Sauna use improves mood & brain function
We are all familiar with the term “runners high”. Part of the reason why we workout is because we feel better. It has a positive effect on our mental state.
The same cohort study mentioned above continued to show impressive results. Those who used the sauna 4-7x per week showed a 65% lower risk of developing Alzheimers and 66% less likely to develop dementia compared to those using the sauna once per week.
The mental benefits continue. These 4-7x sauna users were 77% less likely to develop psychotic disorders regardless of diet, socioeconomic status, physical activity, and inflammatory status.
This is partly because heat stress increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is a protein that promotes new neurons in your central and peripheral nervous system. Increasing BDNF helps with learning, long term memory, executive function, and with muscle repair.
The increase in beta-endorphins from sauna use could be another factor in improving your mood. Beta-endorphins are part of your body’s painkilling and reward system. As Dr. Rhonda Patrick puts it, it’s part of the “feel-good” response to exercise.
All of this is science’s way of saying it puts you in a better mood and helps you recover.