Sauna After Your Workout: Health Benefits | Signos

Using a sauna provides many health and wellness benefits, but should you use a sauna before or after your workout?

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by
Sarah Zimmer, PT, DPT
— Signos
PT, DPT
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
February 29, 2024
July 23, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

After a vigorous workout session, your body craves relaxation and recovery. While there are numerous ways to unwind, one method that has gained popularity among fitness professionals is using a sauna. Heat therapies have been used for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures using hot springs and thermal baths for cleanliness and healing properties.1 Turn to the present day, and many use heat therapies for the preventive, therapeutic, and rehabilitative treatment of many diseases, including joint pain, muscle fatigue, tendinopathies, vascular disease, and more. 

Read on to find out the answer to these questions and learn how sitting in a sauna regularly can help you with your health, fitness, and weight loss goals.

How Do Saunas Work?

Saunas typically consist of a small, enclosed room or cabin made of wood, often with benches and a heat source, such as hot rocks or an electric heater. The room is designed to be heated to high temperatures, typically ranging from 70 to 100 degrees Celsius (160 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit).

The primary mechanism of saunas is the generation of dry heat. The heat source warms the air inside the sauna, then transfers to your body through conduction and convection because your body temperature is lower than the sauna. The gradual increase in body temperature (close to 104 degrees Fahrenheit) triggers physiological responses, such as increasing blood flow, improving circulation, and increasing heart rate. This elevated heart rate stimulates cardiovascular activity, enhancing cardiovascular health and endurance.

Additionally, as your body temperature rises, your sweat glands are stimulated, and you start to perspire. Sweating is the body's natural mechanism for cooling down and regulating body temperature. In a sauna, the dry heat environment promotes profuse sweating, allowing your body to cleanse itself of toxins and waste products through the skin.

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Types of Saunas

Saunas come in various types and setups, each offering a unique experience and method of heat generation. Understanding the different types of saunas can help you choose the one that best suits your preferences and desired outcome. Here are some examples of different types of saunas: 

  • Dry Sauna: The traditional Finnish sauna, known as a dry sauna, is the most well-known and widely used type. It features a wooden room with benches and a heat source, usually heated rocks placed on a stove. Water can be poured over the rocks to generate steam, causing the average temperature to be 160 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 70 to 100 degrees Celsius). These saunas provide a dry and intense heat experience, allowing for deep relaxation and detoxification.
  • Steam Sauna: Steam saunas, or “steam rooms,” create a humid environment by pumping steam into a sealed room. The temperature in steam saunas is lower than in dry saunas, ranging from 104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit (40 to 50 degrees Celsius). The high humidity in steam saunas opens up the pores, promotes sweating, and provides a soothing and moisturizing experience. Steam saunas are often favored for their benefits to the respiratory system, as the moist air can help alleviate congestion and respiratory issues.2
  • Infrared Sauna: Infrared saunas have gained popularity in recent years due to their ability to penetrate the skin more deeply than conventional saunas. Infrared saunas operate at lower temperatures, typically between 120 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (or 50 and 60 degrees Celsius), making them a more tolerable option for those who find the high temperatures of traditional saunas uncomfortable. Infrared saunas provide a gentle, radiant heat that promotes detoxification and relaxation and potential effects on inflammation, joint health, and chronic disease (i.e., rheumatoid arthritis).3

What Are the Health Benefits of Sauna?

In addition to being a relaxing experience, using a sauna can have many other health and wellness benefits for your body and mind. Check out these main benefits of using a sauna that may be relevant to you: 

  1. Enhanced muscle recovery: During an intense exercise session, your muscles generate heat, increasing blood circulation. Saunas help to prolong this effect by promoting vasodilation, which widens your blood vessels and improves blood flow to the muscles. This increased circulation delivers oxygen and nutrients to the muscles while removing waste products like lactic acid. As a result, your muscles recover faster, reducing post-workout soreness and fatigue.
  2. Relieve muscle tension: As your body temperature rises, your muscles experience gentle heat therapy, which can help relieve muscle spasms and reduce muscle stiffness. This is even true for reducing muscle tension in those who deal with chronic tension-type headaches .7
  3. Better cardiovascular health:  When you expose your body to a high temperature, your heart rate increases, similar to the effect of moderate exercise. This mild cardiovascular stress helps improve your heart's endurance and efficiency over time. The dilation of blood vessels during a sauna session also reduces blood pressure and improves circulation. These cardiovascular benefits can help lower heart disease risk and improve cardiovascular fitness.4
  4. Stress relief: Exercising releases endorphins, the body's natural feel-good hormones. Combining exercise with a sauna session can further enhance these feelings of well-being and relaxation. The heat and tranquility of a sauna create a serene environment, allowing you to unwind mentally and emotionally. The release of endorphins during your workout, followed by the calming effects of the sauna, can help alleviate stress and anxiety and promote better sleep.5
  5. Toxins release: As you sit in a sauna, your body temperature rises, stimulating perspiration. Sweating helps eliminate toxins and impurities from your body, such as heavy metals, pesticides, and environmental pollutants. By flushing out these harmful substances, your body can function optimally, improving overall health and well-being. 
  6. Boosted Immune System: Heat exposure in a sauna induces a temporary increase in body temperature, simulating a mild fever. This rise in temperature activates the production of white blood cells, strengthening your immune system. Saunas can help improve the body's ability to fight off infections, reduce the frequency of colds and flu, and promote overall immune health.6

Is Sauna Really Good for Weight Loss? 

Weight loss can occur in various ways and is different from losing pounds of fat. The reduced body mass experienced after being in a sauna is mostly from loss of water weight from profuse sweating. 

While saunas alone should not be considered a primary method for weight loss, they can complement a healthy lifestyle and contribute to your overall weight management goals. For example, some may burn more calories when using the sauna after a workout because of the increased time spent at an elevated heart rate. The number of calories burned could be more substantial, so it is important to incorporate sauna use with exercise and a healthy diet for long-term weight loss success. 

Is It Better to Have a Sauna Before Or After a Workout?

The timing of sauna use in relation to exercise can impact the benefits and effectiveness of both activities. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, understanding the considerations can help you decide whether to use a sauna before or after your workout.

Using a sauna before exercise can have potential benefits such as increasing blood flow and warming your muscle tissues. However, remember that excessive heat exposure before exercise can lead to fatigue and dehydration, hindering your performance and leading to injuries. Instead, consider a post-workout sauna session. The heat from the sauna helps promote muscle relaxation, reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, enhance blood flow, support muscle recovery, and reduce the risk of injury. The combination of the sauna's calming effects and the release of endorphins can also contribute to mental relaxation and stress reduction after a challenging workout.

Regardless of when you use the sauna, it is important to be aware of the potential side effects of using it too long or too frequently. The biggest side effect is severe dehydration, which presents with the following symptoms:  

  • Dryness in the mouth 
  • Extreme thirst
  • Headache
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Not urinating as frequently or having very concentrated urine

Remember to prioritize proper hydration before, during, and after using a sauna to prevent dehydration, as prolonged dehydration can lead to worse conditions such as seizures, muscle weakness, kidney failure, UTIs, and heart attacks. Individuals with chronic conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, and heart failure are more likely to become dehydrated. Check with your doctor before using any type of sauna if you experience any of the above symptoms or conditions. Be sure to check with your doctor before using a sauna if you are pregnant, as it may not be recommended.

Things You Should Keep In Mind Before Using a Sauna

Before stepping into a sauna, there are a few important factors to consider to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here are some key things to keep in mind before using a sauna:

  • Shower before entering: Shower thoroughly to remove any oils, lotions, or sweat from your body, as this will maintain cleanliness and hygiene for you and others using the sauna. Use a towel or sit on a clean towel or mat inside the sauna to avoid direct contact with the sauna benches.
  • Hydrate first: To prevent dehydration, it is crucial to be adequately hydrated before entering the sauna. Drink plenty of water beforehand, and consider bringing a water bottle with added electrolytes to stay hydrated during and after your sauna session.
  • Obtain clearance from your doctor: It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional before using a sauna. Certain conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, respiratory problems, or pregnancy may require precautions or restrict sauna use. A healthcare provider can provide guidance based on your specific circumstances.
  • Cool Down: After your sauna session, allowing your body to cool down gradually is important. Avoid abrupt temperature changes, such as jumping into cold water or taking a cold shower immediately after leaving the sauna. Instead, step into a cooler area or take a lukewarm shower to bring your body temperature down gradually.

How Long Should You Sit in a Sauna After Working Out? 

Sauna sessions should be approached with moderation, especially if you are new to using saunas or have a low tolerance for heat. Start with shorter sessions of around 5 to 10 minutes and gradually increase the duration to 15 to 20 minutes as your body acclimates to the heat. It is important to listen to your body and exit the sauna if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or uncomfortable, as you may be dehydrated. Be mindful of the temperature inside the sauna, and remember to stay adequately hydrated before, during, and after your sauna session. 

Learn More About How to Achieve Better Health Through Exercise with Signos’ Expert Advice.

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References

  1. Gianfaldoni, S., Tchernev, G., Wollina, U., Roccia, M. G., Fioranelli, M., Gianfaldoni, R., & Lotti, T. (2017). History of the Baths and Thermal Medicine. Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences, 5(4), 566–568. https://doi.org/10.3889/oamjms.2017.126
  2. Parunkul Tungsukruthai, Preecha Nootim, Wiwan Worakunphanich, and Nareerat Tabtong (2018). Efficacy and safety of herbal steam bath in allergic rhinitis: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Integrative Medicine; 16(1), 39-44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joim.2017.12.010.
  3. Fredrikus G. J. Oosterveld, Johannes J. Rasker, Mark Floors, Robert Landkroon, Bob van Rennes, Jan Zwijnenberg, Mart A. F. J. van de Laar, and Gerard J. Koel. (2009). Infrared sauna in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. Clinical Rheumatology: 28, 29–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10067-008-0977-y
  4. Jari A. Laukkanen, Tanjaniina Laukkanen, Setor K. Kunutsor. (2018). Cardiovascular and Other Health Benefits of Sauna Bathing: A Review of the Evidence. Mayo Clinic Proceedings; 93(8): 1111-1121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2018.04.008.
  5. Joy N. Hussain, Ronda F. Greaves, Marc M. Cohen. (2019). A hot topic for health: Results of the Global Sauna Survey. Complementary Therapies in Medicine; 44, 223-234. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2019.03.012.
  6. Wanda Pilch, Ilona Pokora, Zbigniew Szyguła,  Tomasz Pałka, Paweł Pilch, Tomasz Cisoń, Lesław Malik, and Szczepan Wiecha. Effect of a Single Finnish Sauna Session on White Blood Cell Profile and Cortisol Levels in Athletes and Non-Athletes. (2013). Journal of Human Kinetics; 29, 127-135.
  7. Giresh Kanji, Mark Weatherall, Raja Peter, Gordon Purdie, and Rachel Page. (2015). Efficacy of Regular Sauna Bathing for Chronic Tension-Type Headache: A Randomized Controlled Study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine; 21(2): 103-109. http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2013.0466

About the author

Sarah is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, graduating from the University of Wisconsin Madison in 2017.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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