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6 Research-Backed Benefits to Sauna for the Athlete

While many of us instinctively gravitate to the sauna as a way to relax, recover from hard work (physical and/or mental), or otherwise indulge ourselves in something that simply feels good, it turns out that it makes complete sense for both our bodies and our minds to crave a bit of sauna time.

Here are six ways spending time in the sauna is a good thing for us—and the science to back up each of these sauna benefits.

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1. Sauna Time Can Improve Our Longevity

Research published in 2015 in JAMA Internal Medicine tracked 2,315 Finnish men, their heart health, and their sauna habits over twenty years. The group of men with the lowest mortality rate were those who got time in the sauna four to seven times per week. The men who frequented the sauna more often saw a reduced risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality. Researchers believe this heart-protecting benefits comes from the increased heart rate we experience while the sauna, which correlates to performing low- to moderate-intensity exercise.

2. Sauna Can Improve Our Endurance and Aerobic Capacity

There are two ways in which the sauna can help us when it comes to our endurance. First, a 2007 study done on male distance runners showed that regular sauna bathing increased time to exhaustion by 32%, and that plasma and red blood cell volumes increased. So, basically, sauna can help us perform better by increasing our blood volume.

Additionally, it is believed that spending time in the sauna can help us improve our tolerance to heat. This means we’ll be better able to handle the natural increase in body temperature that comes with prolonged physical efforts and exposure to heat while competing or performing.

3. Sauna Can Stimulate Our Muscle Growth

Heat therapy or “hyperthermia” has been shown to increase the production of “heat shock proteins.” Heat shock proteins repair damaged proteins in our bodies. They also protect us against oxidative damage. The same study also showed an improvement in muscle growth. So, essentially, this sort of therapy can help reduce muscle breakdown and increase muscle building.

On top of that, a 1988 study showed an increase in growth hormone after exposure to the sauna and a 2007 study showed exposure to heat can increase insulin sensitivity and therefore help you build and maintain lean body mass and regulate sugar.

4. Sauna Can Be Good for Our Brain, Too

Spending time in the sauna causes our body to release more norepinephrine. Proper norepinephrine levels are believed to help protect us from everything from Alzheimer’s to migraines.

Alongside, norepinephrine our level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (also known as BDNF) also increases with both exercise and heat exposure. This is important as BDNF has been shown in research to be associated with the birth of new neurons and an increase in cognitive function.

5. Sauna Can Cleanse Our Skin

It’s important for our skin to be healthy not just for aesthetic reasons, but because it protects us from the environment and microbes, and also helps regulate our body temperature. Getting in a good sauna allows your skin to clean itself and remove dead skin cells. Not only will your skin “breathe” better and protect you better, but it will look better, too.

P.S. On a related note, the heat of a sauna can trigger our sebaceous glands, which are located on our scalp. The sebaceous glands release compounds that make our hair appear shiny and healthy.

6. Sauna Can Boost Our Immune System

A 2013 study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics examined the impact of traditional Finnish sauna bathing on the immune system. Research subjects included nine trained runners and nine non-athletes. After just one sessions of fifteen minutes in the sauna, subjects showed increased white blood cells. And, interestingly, the athletes showed more improvement to their white blood cell count than the non-athletes.

The Conclusion on Sauna Time for the Athlete

Whether you have access to a traditional (or “Finnish”) sauna or a modern infrared sauna, you can experience all these benefits and more. It’s certainly worth a try—and given the near guarantee that the sauna will relieve stress, you’ll feel better in some way, no matter what! And there may also be social benefits to sauna bathing if you are spending that time with others.

If you’re new to the sauna, just take it slowly. Don’t amp up the heat too high or too quickly, stand up slowly when your time is up, and stay hydrated. If you have a history of health or heart troubles, check in with your doctor first before prescribing yourself time in the sauna

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