Study: A session in the sauna works out the heart just as much as exercise

HALLE, Germany — Many fitness centers offer saunas to their clients, and they’re a great way to get an extra shvitz after a workout. It turns out that a sauna session is also a great way to get the heart pumping a little extra, too, according to new research.

A study conducted by researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in collaboration with researchers at the Medical Center Berlin shows that a short sauna session causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that’s comparable to the increase seen from a brief, moderate intensity workout.

It’s long been assumed that a sauna session causes a steady decrease in blood pressure, but researchers say their work proves otherwise. “It was thought that the heat dilates the blood vessels and that this lowers the blood pressure”, says Dr. Sascha Ketelhut, lead author of the study and a sports scientist at Martin Luther University, in a university release.

For the study, researchers measured the heart rate and blood pressure of 19 participants during a 25-minute sauna session and during a 30-minute period after the session. The next day participants completed a short workout on an exercise bike while their heart rate and blood pressure were measured.

A baseline heart rate and blood pressure reading were taken before the sauna session began. At the start of the sauna session the heart rate and blood pressure of participants rose significantly. During the 30-minute period after the session, they both dropped to values significantly lower than their baseline values.

This shows that a sauna session can be quite demanding on the cardiovascular system. This effect is even more pronounced when the heart rate and blood pressure readings from the sauna session are compared with the readings from the exercise session.

“Comparing the two conditions, the participants’ blood pressure and heart rate reached the same levels during the sauna session as they did with a load of about 100 watts during the exercise test”, says Ketelhut.

The findings of this study fall in line with the results of previous studies that show that long-term sauna use has a positive effect on one’s heart health.

Ketelhut notes that even though a sauna session places a physical strain on the body similar to sports activities, the sweating of a sauna session does not contribute to healthy weight loss. “The effect is too low as there is no muscle activity. Although we lose weight in the sauna, but these are just the fluids that we sweat out. One should rehydrate after a sauna session, though”, concludes Ketelhut.

The study is published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

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