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The best gyms don’t only boast a state-of-the-art cardio machine, strength training equipment, and free weights galore; it’s also about the amenities, including saunas and steam rooms.
RELATED: Steam Room Vs Sauna
You always vow to slow down and stay awhile after your workout, taking the time to cool down and then sweat it out in the sauna instead of rinsing off and getting back to the day-to-day, but what exactly have you been missing out on? What benefits should you expect from using a sauna? Can you use a sauna for weight loss?
Sydney Lappe, RD, answers these questions and more, discussing saunas, their health benefits, and how to use them safely and responsibly to improve your physical health and fitness.
Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.
Can Saunas Help with Weight Loss?
Before addressing whether saunas can help with weight loss, let’s warm up to the different types of saunas:
- Traditional Finnish sauna: The traditional sauna uses a wood-burning stove or electric heater to produce dry heat, typically between 160 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Turkish sauna: Commonly referred to as steam rooms, Turkish saunas offer lower temperatures, approximately 110 to 120 degrees, but use nearly 100% humidity.
- Infrared sauna: The newcomer in the space, infrared saunas rose to prevalence in the late 1900s. Rather than heating the air around the user, these saunas use infrared light to heat the body at lower room temperatures. Studies show1 that infrared saunas also appear “favorable for the neuromuscular system to recover from maximal endurance performance” compared to traditional Finnish sauna bathing.
Regardless of the type, saunas may enable users to lose weight for three reasons:
Increases in Energy Expenditure
Higher temperatures from sauna use can increase body temperature, heart rate, and blood flow, all things that also happen when we engage in physical exercise. That means you’ll burn calories at a higher rate than you would’ve if you were sitting sedentary.
A study in BioMed Research International2 suggests that the repeated use of a Finnish sauna—specifically four 10-minute sauna sessions with four 5-minute cooldowns—increases energy expenditure. The findings also show energy expenditure significantly increases as sauna duration and body weight do.
Specifically, the participants expended about 73 calories in the first 10-minute sauna session, while the last session increased calorie burn to more than 130 calories. Participants with higher body masses also expended over 150 calories during 10 minutes of sauna use.
While saunas shouldn’t displace exercise, sitting in a sauna can enhance calorie burn compared to being sedentary at room temperature.
Water Weight Loss via Sweating
The main reason we observe weight loss after each sauna session is from excess sweating. Because of the high temperatures inside the sauna, your body will respond by releasing sweat in an effort to cool you down.
According to a 2014 study in The Scientific World Journal3, “the body of an average male weighing 75 kg contains approximately 45 liters of water,” which translates to nearly twelve gallons. At approximately eight pounds per gallon, that’s a lot of water weight!
“Shedding water weight will cause you to lose weight in the short term, but this isn’t true fat loss. That water weight lost during the sauna session naturally returns after rehydrating,” Sydney Lappe, RD, adds.
Enhances Muscle Recovery and Performance
It’s also worth considering that people may actively work to improve their physical fitness and health by using saunas as muscle recovery tools. Effective recovery allows you to enhance performance and muscle protein synthesis4, which can improve body composition over time.
Moreover, these individuals are likely to live a healthy lifestyle by consuming a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress.
How Long Should You Sauna to Lose Weight?
Ronda Rousey once spent five hours in a sauna, losing a whopping 17 pounds, to prove a point about weight loss. Unfortunately, her point was not well received because of the extreme danger she placed herself in with this senseless act.
“The initial weight loss may be tempting, but the risks may not outweigh the benefits,” says Sydney Lappe, RD, “especially if new to high temperatures or managing a health condition like heart disease, prolonged sauna exposure can be dangerous to the user.”
So, what’s a healthy duration to get the maximum benefit without putting yourself at risk?
While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, The American College of Sports Medicine5 recommends limiting sauna use to no more than 10 minutes at a time. Waiting at least 10 minutes after exercising is also recommended.
“It’s ultimately best to consult your doctor or healthcare team for expert guidance, particularly if you have targeted health goals like weight loss,” Sydney encourages. “Not only can they help you navigate your goals safely, but offer insight into minimizing the risks of sauna use based on your health history and needs.”
Risks of Sauna Use and Dehydration
While we err on the side of caution when it comes to sauna bathing and its use for weight loss and other health benefits, some people are predisposed or accustomed to longer sessions. Likewise, some might find sitting in a high temperature environment for even five minutes to be a little much.
“Dehydration is one of the most worrisome and common risks of sauna use,” warns Sydney. “And your risk of dehydration compounds if you race straight to the sauna after a sweaty workout and skimp proper hydration, so be sure to keep a water bottle handy whenever you’re sauna bathing.”
Symptoms of dehydration6 include:
- dark, strong-smelling urine
- urinating less or less often
“Drinking water before, during, and after use can help mitigate dangerous dehydration, so keep a water bottle handy whenever you’re sauna bathing,” Sydney encourages. “But dehydration can also lead to electrolyte imbalances, so you may need to replenish them with an electrolyte drink. Certain foods—like bananas, coconut water, watermelon, and avocado—also contain electrolytes and can be a double bonus for pre-workout fuel.”
Saunas also elevate your heart rate, which could pose a risk to individuals with a history of cardiovascular events. Once again, it’s prudent to discuss your heart health and risk factors with your doctor before using a sauna or steam room.
Other Benefits of Saunas
The high heat of a sauna produces various biological changes, including potential weight loss benefits like calorie burn and reduced water weight, but those aren’t the only sauna-induced occurrences.
RELATED: Benefits of Sauna After Workout
May Help Improve Cholesterol Levels
According to a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Occupational Medicine and Environmental Health7, sauna bathing may improve your lipid profile, including “a reduction in total cholesterol…LDL cholesterol…[and] triacylglycerols.” The study also states that “the positive effect of sauna on lipid profile is similar to the effect that can be obtained through moderate-intensity physical exercise.”
“Your lipid profile provides medical professionals information about your overall health, including your risk for cardiovascular disease, pancreatic inflammation, obesity, and other adverse conditions,” says Sydney Lappe, RD. “Living a healthy lifestyle, including consuming a healthy diet, effectively helps reduce these risks, but research shows using a sauna contributes positively as well.”
May Help Improve Heart Health
A 2018 study published in BMC Medicine8 found that sauna bathing contributed to a healthier cardiovascular system, reduced risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases, and improved risk prediction for men and women.
More recently, a 2023 study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging9 corroborated this finding, noting that sauna use was associated with reduced risk of heart disease mortality and reduced resting and systolic blood pressure.
May Help Detox
According to a 2022 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health10, sweating it out in the sauna was a useful method for detoxing the body, too, helping excrete heavy metals, including nickel, lead, copper, arsenic, and mercury, and contribute to a healthier lymphatic system.
However, the study conceded that detoxification effects were greater when sweating was a result of regular exercise rather than just sitting in extreme heat. Another important note is that the body can excrete most toxins on its own.
May Help Boost Athletic Performance
A 2023 study published in Biology of Sport11 determined that the use of an infrared sauna yielded various benefits for athletes, including improved explosive performance, reduced muscle soreness and inflammation, and mental health benefits, including improved mood and feelings of motivation.
RELATED: Infrared Sauna Benefits
Sauna for Weight Loss: Final Thoughts
Sitting in a sauna can be relaxing and therapeutic, but can also be an extra means for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight if used responsibly.
While sauna use shouldn’t replace adopting and sustaining a healthy lifestyle, the high heat may help sauna bathers sweat away excess water weight and burn calories. It may also reduce their risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce stress levels, assist in muscle recovery, and improve athletic performance, among other health benefits.
So the next time you wrap up your workout at the gym, consider sticking around for a quick sit down in the sauna if one’s available. You may also consider purchasing the best home sauna to reap these benefits if your budget and space allow.
Sauna for Weight Loss: FAQs
Is the sauna good for losing belly fat?
Studies show that regular sauna use may result in body mass loss, but the effects are mostly temporary. Furthermore, the weight loss is predominantly water weight, which returns following rehydration.
“The optimal and sustainable way to lose belly fat is by living a healthy lifestyle,” says Sydney Lappe, RD. “Using the sauna can be part of that lifestyle, but exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep should take priority.”
Is a sauna a healthy way to lose weight?
Yes and no.
Regular sauna use for approximately 10 to 20 minutes per session may contribute to weight loss, but pulling a stunt like Ronda Rousey once did (spending five hours in a sauna) can seriously jeopardize your health.
At the end of the day, the best intervention you could make to support your weight loss journey is to adopt a consistent and comprehensive workout program, eat a healthy diet, and prioritize getting enough sleep.
Making these changes can produce profound results towards helping you reach and maintain a healthy weight, as well as promoting better health overall.
Should I sauna before or after a workout?
1. Mero A, Tornberg J, Mäntykoski M, Puurtinen R. Effects of far-infrared sauna bathing on recovery from strength and endurance training sessions in men. Springerplus. 2015;4:321. Published 2015 Jul 7. doi:10.1186/s40064-015-1093-5
2. Podstawski R, Borysławski K, Clark CCT, Choszcz D, Finn KJ, Gronek P. Correlations between Repeated Use of Dry Sauna for 4 x 10 Minutes, Physiological Parameters, Anthropometric Features, and Body Composition in Young Sedentary and Overweight Men: Health Implications. Biomed Res Int. 2019;2019:7535140. Published 2019 Jan 21. doi:10.1155/2019/7535140
3. Podstawski R, Boraczyński T, Boraczyński M, Choszcz D, Mańkowski S, Markowski P. Sauna-induced body mass loss in young sedentary women and men. ScientificWorldJournal. 2014;2014:307421. doi:10.1155/2014/307421
4. McGlory C, Devries MC, Phillips SM. Skeletal muscle and resistance exercise training; the role of protein synthesis in recovery and remodeling. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2017 Mar 1;122(3):541-548. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00613.2016. Epub 2016 Oct 14. PMID: 27742803; PMCID: PMC5401959.
5. ACSM’s Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines-4th Edition. (n.d.). Maintain health/fitness facility sauna, steam room, and Whirlpool Operating Standards. Human Kinetics. https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/maintain-health-fitness-facility-sauna-steam-room-and-whirlpool-operating-standards
6. Taylor K, Jones EB. Adult Dehydration. [Updated 2022 Oct 3]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555956/
7. Gryka D, Pilch W, Szarek M, Szygula Z, Tota Ł. The effect of sauna bathing on lipid profile in young, physically active, male subjects. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2014;27(4):608-618. doi:10.2478/s13382-014-0281-9
8. Laukkanen T, Kunutsor SK, Khan H, Willeit P, Zaccardi F, Laukkanen JA. Sauna bathing is associated with reduced cardiovascular mortality and improves risk prediction in men and women: a prospective cohort study. BMC Med. 2018;16(1):219. Published 2018 Nov 29. doi:10.1186/s12916-018-1198-0
9. Laukkanen JA, Jae SY, Kauhanen J, Kunutsor SK. The Interplay between Systolic Blood Pressure, Sauna Bathing, and Cardiovascular Mortality in Middle-Aged and Older Finnish Men: A Cohort Study. J Nutr Health Aging. 2023;27(5):348-353. doi:10.1007/s12603-023-1895-1
10. Kuan WH, Chen YL, Liu CL. Excretion of Ni, Pb, Cu, As, and Hg in Sweat under Two Sweating Conditions. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(7):4323. Published 2022 Apr 4. doi:10.3390/ijerph19074323
11. Ahokas EK, Ihalainen JK, Hanstock HG, Savolainen E, Kyröläinen H. A post-exercise infrared sauna session improves recovery of neuromuscular performance and muscle soreness after resistance exercise training. Biol Sport. 2023;40(3):681-689. doi:10.5114/biolsport.2023.119289
12. Scoon GS, Hopkins WG, Mayhew S, Cotter JD. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. J Sci Med Sport. 2007;10(4):259-262. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009
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