To many Americans, a sauna is a hot room at a hotel, gym or spa that provides some moments of relaxation after a workout or swimming session. If these types of saunas are modeled after traditional saunas, they typically involve a stove that heats rocks to high temperatures and provides long-lasting heat. However, sauna patrons in hotels and spas are often not permitted to pour water onto the rocks to increase the temperature. Despite the considerable differences, many Americans might also confuse saunas with steam rooms.
In Finland, however, saunas are a much more integral part of the culture. Finnish people may take multiple saunas per week at temperatures much hotter than a typical spa or hotel would allow. In fact, most people have saunas right in their homes. According to a new study, all these saunas may be helping Finns live longer.
Significant Reduction in Mortality Risk
The new study appears in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from universities in Finland, Rome and Atlanta collaborated to assess the health of 2,315 men in Finland. The men had been having their health tracked since 1984 and were aged 42 to 60 when tracking began. According to the research, the men spent an average of 14 minutes in a sauna twice per week. The average sauna temperature was 174 degrees Fahrenheit.
It was found that men who spent more than the average time in saunas had a much lower risk of death due to a heart condition. During the 19-year course of the study, 407 men died from cardiovascular disease, 281 from heart disease, and 190 from sudden cardiac arrest. It was found that men who took two to three saunas per week had a 23 percent lower risk of succumbing to heart disease when compared to those who only took one sauna per week. Men who bathed in a sauna four to seven times per week had a 48 percent lower risk of death due to similar heart issues. Also, only one to two percent of sudden deaths occurred within 24 hours of being in a sauna.
What Causes the Benefits?
Researchers have not been able to determine exactly how saunas prevent heart problems. One theory is that high temperatures found in saunas can cause heart rates to climb to well over 100 beats per minute, which mirrors low-intensity exercise. The heart benefits could also be due to the fact that saunas are typically relaxing. Less stress can mean a healthier heart. At the same time, having more time for sauna bathing could also mean that a person has more leisure time in general, meaning that a frequent sauna-goer might be less stressed in the first place.
Saunas and Heart Health: The Bottom Line
The study is limited in a couple ways: it was only conducted in Finland and does not include women. However, several areas of the U.S., such as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, may be seeing similar benefits because they’re densely populated with people that have Finnish heritage. Many of these people frequently use traditional Finnish saunas. However, any aging man – sauna-goer or not – should still rely on the basics of heart health as they age: get some exercise, don’t smoke, and eat healthy.