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January 05, 2023
Saunas and steam rooms are quickly becoming a favorite form of passive recovery for gym goers and fitness professionals. And what's not to like? Between the poshness, spa-like feel, and relaxation, heat therapy can feel downright luxurious.
Originating from Finland and Scandinavia, you can find saunas and steam rooms around the world, even in South Florida and the Caribbean, where "cold" means anything below 80 degrees.
This is because these artificial sweat machines are becoming well-known for both their general health and performance benefits. But what exactly are these benefits, and more importantly, are they backed by science? In a time where most things supposedly provide health benefits, deciphering the truth from money-making scams can be difficult.
And that's where we come in! This article will examine the two popular forms of heat therapy, saunas and steam rooms, and their research-backed benefits.
In addition, this post will discuss:
We understand the majority of you are probably interested in figuring out whether a steam vs sauna room is effective for muscle recovery, so let's get into that first. To date, we can say that the studies that have been done look promising. Having said that, more research is needed on both saunas and steam rooms.
A study from 2015 examined sauna use as a form of post-workout recovery in young adults performing muscle damaging wrist flexion1. This study found that over the study's 8-day duration, the group who partook in sauna use had a better range of motion and less discomfort from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
A 2018 study also showed that the sauna after a workout had a positive effect on both delayed onset muscle soreness and actual athletic performance2. A group of basketball players performed a specific strength and conditioning workout with ballistics. After using infrared saunas, the basketball players reported improved symptoms from DOMS and increased explosiveness and muscle function.
Many studies examining the performance and health benefits of sauna vs steam room are done with endurance athletes. Some of the benefits include a decrease in free radicals from endurance exercise and improved fitness markers3. In addition, passive heating methods such as saunas and steam rooms can help an athlete acclimate to warm climates4.
When determining which is better for post-workout recovery, the good news is that there is no bad option. Both saunas and steam rooms are relatively inexpensive post-recovery methods. In fact, many gym memberships include the use of the gym's sauna or steam room. The point being is that if you have easy access to one, it will likely offer some form of recovery benefit.
But, keep in mind, the use of a sauna or steam room should never outweigh the importance of proper sleep and nutrition. If you're already getting adequate amounts of sleep and have your nutrition on lock, go ahead and spend some time getting your sweat on! As for what's better sauna or steam room - keep reading as we'll get into that shortly!
First, let's touch on why muscle recovery is important, along with the differences between saunas and steam rooms.
The importance of recovery is finally becoming better understood by serious lifters, but for many gym goers, there is still some confusion around it. Your muscle recovery ultimately dictates your success and performance in your next training session. Quality recovery time can often determine whether you have an awesome workout or miss some reps.
Recovery is your body's time to heal and recharge. Without it, your training sessions will suffer. During your workout program, you train and break down your muscle. Next, you recover and let your muscles heal. This allows you to then return to the gym and break it down again.
By missing out on your recovery, your muscles never get to fully repair and rebuild, leading to them being in a perpetual state of trying to grow. Emphasizing the importance of sleep is a great way to promote recovery, but other methods, such as heat therapy, like the steam sauna vs dry sauna, have also been researched to determine if they also optimize recovery.
Let's talk more about heat therapy and how it helps with muscle recovery.
Heat therapy involves raising the internal core body temperature of an individual for a prolonged period of time. Some heat therapy methods that can do this include:
Heat therapy has been shown to be effective at providing several health benefits and improving multiple health markers. Some of these benefits include improved insulin response, lowering of obesity, heart and cardiovascular benefits, muscular relaxation, curing back pain and sore muscles, and improved cognition⁵.
Two of the most popular forms of heat therapy are steam rooms and sauna, both of which we're about to discuss in more detail.
Saunas are what most people think of when they hear the term heat therapy.
They are enclosed heated rooms, usually with an interior made of wood, that utilize dry heat to increase the room's temperature. This is a major difference between steam room and sauna. The most common sauna heating technique is the use of hot rocks, but there are other methods as well, like with infrared saunas, which use infrared light to create dry heat.
Hot rocks contain a large number of iron oxides, causing them to draw excessive heat and then expel this heat, usually done by pouring water on them. While this does produce some steam at first, the primary source of the heat is "dry."
Saunas can get exceptionally warm. Temperatures can range anywhere from 150 degrees to 190 degrees. Due to these excessively high temperatures, when it comes to a dry sauna vs steam room, a sauna session will be shorter than that of a steam room.
You should only sit for about 5 minutes when you first start using saunas. Leave the sauna, assess how you feel, and determine if you want to reenter for another 5 minutes. Once you become accustomed to the heat, you can gradually increase these sessions to 10-15 minutes intervals. While the entire session could last much longer, up to 45 minutes, it's best to do so in smaller intervals, taking brief breaks in between mini-sessions.
When comparing a steam room vs sauna health benefits, a steam room relies solely on wet heat. Typically, steam rooms require using boiling water and warm condensation.
When discussing and comparing steam room benefits vs sauna, steam rooms are significantly "cooler" than saunas, relatively speaking. Averaging an ambient air temperature of 100-110 degrees, these are temperatures you might occasionally see if you live in places such as Arizona or Florida. This makes them much more "comfortable" for first-time users.
Because steam heat is not as hot, you can start with a 15-minute session. You can then increase from there per your comfort level. It's important to still be mindful of your hydration levels and exit at the first sign of dizziness.
Yes, the benefits of saunas and steam rooms don't stop with post-workout recovery. These forms of heat therapy provide various health benefits that stem from increased blood flow and core body temperature.
Today, most studies have been on saunas and dry heat rather than steam rooms and moist heat. While we would assume that many health benefits associated with sauna studies also apply to the steam room, we can't say this with 100% positivity, as more research needs to be done.
With this in mind, we will go over some of the benefits of saunas and steam rooms, individually, and based on research.
On top of just feeling really good following a tough leg workout (or any workout!), there are two major health benefits of saunas, including its ability to reduce inflammation and improve skin health.
Here's a closer look at each.
Many chronic diseases are the result of chronic inflammation, including stroke, respiratory disease, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes⁶.
The effects of sauna usage on inflammation is one of the most studied health benefits. Evidence shows saunas have a positive effect on a ton of chronic diseases, helping to lower all-mortality risks, including sudden cardiac death (SCD), fatal coronary heart disease (CHD), and fatal cardiovascular disease (CVD).
A critical finding from this study shows that a dose-effect exists for both duration and frequency. Frequency seemed to play a larger role, with those going 4-7 times a week having the greatest benefits. The good news is that if your gym has a sauna and you're following a routine ranging anywhere from a 4-day workout split to a 7-day split, it's easy to add these sessions on after your workouts.
Regardless, as seen, frequently using saunas can improve a wide array of health complications. If you have a health concern related to any of the above problems, regular use of the sauna could be an effective form of therapy, but always speak with your doctor first.
There is an idea that regular sauna use can dry out the skin, likely due to the loss of sweat. However, the opposite seems to be true.
Regular sauna use can actually increase the skin's ability to hold water, resulting in increased skin hydration. A study examining the effect of two 15-minute sauna sessions on several variables found multiple positive effects, including more stable epidermal barrier function, an increase in stratum corneum hydration, and faster recovery of both elevated water loss and skin pH⁷.
In other words, your skin becomes more hydrated and can maintain proper pH levels more easily. For best skin results, partake in regular sauna sessions.
And if you're interested in reading up on more science-backed sauna research, check out our article on infrared sauna blanket benefits, which is essentially a portable way to experience the same benefits as traditional saunas. No gym membership required!
Steam rooms also have some awesome health benefits. Many of them overlap with saunas, but they also have a few unique benefits, thanks to the moist heat and condensation.
Steam baths have been shown to release a hormone called aldosterone, which regulates our blood pressure⁸. Research indicates that similar to regular LISS cardio, steam rooms can help lower blood pressure by releasing aldosterone.
The same study above also showed an improvement in other hormones, including lowering cortisol, which is the body's stress hormone⁸. While cortisol does have some positive effects, it can also cause problems.
For example, prolonged increased cortisol levels can make building muscle much more difficult. By helping maintain proper levels, your body can theoretically stay in a higher anabolic state.
Another benefit, in part thanks to sweating, is its effect on skin blood flow and skin health. While in a steam room, your body heats up, and you experience more blood flow to the skin⁹. In addition, your body sweats, providing a cleansing effect.
Together, the various physiological effects on the body result in healthier skin that is cleaner and more hydrated.
The moist heat from a steam bath plays a unique role in improving nasal congestion and mitigating the existence of various nasal bacteria.
Improving nasal pathways and combating allergies with the use of a herbal steam bath is already commonplace in Southeast Asia. Luckily, researchers have taken these claims seriously and started investigating whether steam rooms truly help with nasal issues.
One 2018 study examined the effects of herbal steam baths on a common nasal bacteria called allergic rhinitis10. The study specifically looked at the results of an herbal steam bath versus a standard steam bath. While the herbs had no meaningful impact, both forms had a significant effect on decreasing symptoms. In other words, a steam bath is effective with or without things like herbs and essential oils.
As research has proved both to be effective, this leaves you with a decision. The steam room vs sauna: Which one should you use?
If you have access to one more than the other, or if one is significantly easier to use, we suggest you just pick that one. And if you don't have frequent access to either a sauna or steam room, you may even want to consider picking up one of these infrared sauna blankets, which provides similar benefits to a sauna but is portable and far more convenient.
Remember that frequency is a significant factor in the benefits of saunas and steam rooms, so the one you can use more consistently is the better choice.
That said, when it comes to the steam room vs sauna, we suggest using the one that's benefits most meets your needs. When weighing the benefits of sauna vs steam room, the one ailment that seems to be most specific to one over the other is the use of a steam room for nasal congestion and allergies. Further, if you're hoping to improve your skin hydration, a steam room may have better benefits for that one as well.
Alternatively, if you're hoping to tackle inflammation, the sauna is likely the better option. In addition, more research has been done on saunas, so that would be your "safer" bet if choosing between steam room vs sauna benefits. But again, both seem to provide benefits with consistent use. There's really no wrong choice.
A sauna or steam room can both provide health benefits and are generally safe, as long as you don't overdo it. Follow these safety precautions to ensure you get the most out of your heat therapy while mitigating any risk.
Even though they are relatively common, the sauna and steam room produce extreme heat that's far above the level you should be in for an extended period. Start slow. This goes for both the heat and the duration of the session.
You have no idea how you will react until you try it. Unfortunately, by the time you realize you may have overdone it, you could have difficulty getting out. Don't wait that long.
This should be obvious, but as you should keep each session short, you don't have time to sleep. Don't think that you can set the alarm either because if you don't wake up, you can be in big trouble. If you are feeling tired, you may want to skip your sauna or steam room session.
We don't care what the UFC fighters are doing. Do not use these for weight loss. The majority of the "weight loss" comes from water weight and is temporary. While there's a chance that prolonged elevated body temperature burns calories, it's a small amount.
If you try to lose weight with saunas or steam rooms, you will force yourself to stay in them for an excessively long duration. Skip the quick fix and lose weight the healthy way, like via a cutting workout and diet plan.
Those with high blood pressure or heart complications should be careful of steam rooms and saunas. These rooms expel intense heat.
This elevates your physiological systems, presenting a health risk for those with various cardiovascular health issues. These individuals need to be extra cautious when using these rooms. In fact, avoid using them until you speak with your doctor.
Based on research, there are several bonafide sauna vs steam room benefits that come with regular use of both the sauna and traditional steam room. However, the key to reaping the benefits of steam room vs sauna is regular use. Like most things, it takes time and consistency. You can't just use one 30-minute session to completely undo all your health issues.
We like that it takes time and commitment because it tells us that the benefits are likely to be more permanent. Our parting thought: if you have easy access to a traditional sauna or steam room, it would likely benefit you to relax in one at least 3 times a week for 15 minutes or so.
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