The sauna is a great place to recover after an intense workout, get your meditation done, or sweat out last night’s drinks. Short bursts of intense heat have been shown to reduce muscle soreness, improve range of motion, alleviate pain, and preserve muscle mass.
The biggest benefit of sauna use, though, is that it just might save your life.
It turns out that consistent exposure to super-high temperatures replicates the effects of intense exercise, which in turn helps reduce your risk of fatal heart conditions and can even help you live longer.
To fully understand how sauna use increases longevity, we have to take a trip to the frigid forests of Finland.
Finnish Study Finds Sauna Use Boosts Longevity
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found a strong correlation between sauna bathing and lower risks of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease, and all-cause mortality.
Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland observed 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years. All of the men were weekly sauna visitors, roasting in 176° F heat for an average of 14 minutes per session. Interestingly, the researchers found that the men who logged more sauna sessions lived longer than those who went less frequently.
Over the course of the two-decade study, 49% of men who went to a sauna once a week died, compared with 38% of those who went 2-3 times per week and just 31% of those who went 4-7 times per week. Frequent sauna visits were also associated with lower death rates from stroke and cardiovascular disease.
In other words, men who used the sauna most frequently decreased their mortality rate by 37% compared to those who went less often.
These findings are often cited because the researchers adjusted them for potential biases such as socioeconomic status and baseline fitness levels. Most importantly, access to saunas wasn’t an issue for the participants, given how deeply sauna use is rooted in Finnish culture (Finland has as many saunas as television sets).
So, how does sitting in a sauna deliver similar health benefits to prescription medications and other Western medicine practices?
How Can Sauna Use Increase Longevity?
Baking in a sauna mimics the physiologic response of intense exercise—specifically, it increases your heart rate to 100-150 beats per minute. Done consistently, this makes your heart more resilient, which in turn increases longevity.
A 2021 meta-analysis, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, identified several ways that consistent sauna bathing can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved function of the endothelium (the membrane lining inside of the heart and blood vessels)
- Reduced oxidative stress and inflammation
- Increased HDL (“good cholesterol”) and decreased LDL (“bad cholesterol”)
- Positive impact on the autonomic nervous system
Problems with any of these pathways can lead to chronic diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol—so it stands to reason that activities (like sauna bathing) which prevent those problems can increase longevity.
How to Maximize the Benefits of Sauna Use
If you want to replicate the same process from the Finnish sauna study, here are the criteria they followed:
- Type of sauna: Dry sauna (heated by electrical conventional or infrared heaters)
- Humidity level: 10%-20%
- Temperature: 176°F (80°C)
- Duration: 20 minutes
- Frequency: 4-7 times per week
While sauna sessions mimic the effects of exercise, they shouldn’t take the place of your normal workout routine.
“I don’t know that I would substitute a sauna for exercise,” says Dr. Thomas H. Lee, a cardiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But exercising and then taking a sauna seems like a very healthy routine.”
Sweat Your Way to a Longer Life
Saunas are having a moment, thanks to health influencers spreading the word about the data we explored above. But sweating it out isn’t a modern health hack by any means. There’s archaeological evidence that the ancient Mayans were the first people to reap the benefits of saunas when they built sweat houses 3,000 years ago. The first saunas built in Africa were also designed to facilitate sweating to help detoxify the body.
It’s worth noting that sauna use isn’t recommended for people with a history of low blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, or reduced sweat function. Pregnant women and children should also stay out of saunas.
But if you’re an otherwise healthy person, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest increasing the heat can increase your lifespan.