Health Hack #36 - The Power Of Heat
|Cause or Correlation?|
Each year a panel of global contributors issue a World Happiness Report, and the report ranks countries in terms of the overall happiness of the general population. The findings range in excess of 100 pages, and pull from a wide arena of factors, ranging from climate, to economic conditions like GDP and social support, to life expectancy. For the past few years, Finland has come in at #1. Not far behind are other Scandinavian countries, namely Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. This is a trend that has been on repeat for years on end.
As anyone who has visited Scandinavia will know, sauna is deeply embedded in the culture, and public saunas are as ubiquitous in urban Scandinavia as are laundromats in urban U.S. cities. We’re not talking about places with gym equipment and a small hot room tucked in the rear of the locker room. These are brick and mortar institutions devoted predominantly towards the use of sauna, steam rooms, etc., and used mostly by members whose sole objective is to use the facility for the heat exposure.
There is no direct causal link that ties sauna to overall happiness. But given the science that has been emerging around saunas over the last few years, it’s probably not purely coincidental that the nations that gave birth to and still cherish the sauna tradition are all at the top of the happiness heap. As it turns out, saunas – or more likely, consistent heat exposure in general – kick-start a great deal of feel good effects, both physiologically and mentally.
1. Honor Hormesis
A term oft used in the health and wellness world, hormesis is beautifully articulate at getting to the crux of the benefits of heat exposure. What is not useful or potentially even quite dangerous in high doses may happen to be extremely beneficial when dosed properly. Heat exposure possesses a plethora of rehabilitative properties when dosed properly. Overdoing things can be dangerous regardless of the activity, but high heat exposure is particularly sensitive here. Dehydration is a legitimate concern, which can be avoided via proper dosing, or in this context, the appropriate duration spent under heat stress. Being properly hydrated and mineralized goes a very long way when we sweat extensively for a prolonged period of time.
2. Take what you can get
Like the Paleo versus Vegan rivalry, there is much debate within sauna camps as to which method is most ideal. On the one end is what’s known as dry sauna. If your gym has a sauna, then there’s a 95% chance it’s a dry one. Dry heat, low humidity. The heat source alters the temperature of the ambient air, which compels your body temperature to rise and invites you to sweat and sweat and sweat. Infrared saunas are positioned as a rival to the dry sauna. With an infrared unit, the ambient air isn’t as high, because electromagnetic radiation directly warms your body. The ambient air (aka the temperature gage affixed to the unit) will generally be much lower in an infrared unit than a dry one, but core body temperature increases can still be fairly equivalent. Then there are wet saunas, also known as steam rooms. These need not require explanation, as we’re all familiar with the high humidity, the abundance of steam, and the sopping wetness of the entire room. For the sake of reaping health benefits, simply use what you have access to. As noted above, even allow a hot yoga studio to serve as your heat exposure vessel. Some may be more beneficial than others, but all are better than nothing.
3. Spread the Love
Traditional Finnish sauna practices involve quite a bit of socialization. This may seem odd, keeling over in sweat beside a close friend. But have you ever endured a rigorous hot yoga class or intense hour-long spin class by yourself? There’s something about battling with a small battalion beside you that compels you to push a step beyond where you may push if alone. And whether you have a sauna buddy or not, at the very least share your experiences with those closest to you, and ask for them to spread the love also. It’s often quite difficult for someone on the sidelines to start an exercise practice, and if they’re out of the know, it can be dangerous and intimating, and hiring a trainer to mitigate these concerns can be quite expensive. The barriers to entry for a heat exposure practice are incredibly low and easy when you consider the rewards. Most gyms have them, and nowadays at home units are available online which in some cases aren’t much more costly than a yearlong gym membership. Keep in mind that the cardiovascular and cognitive benefits that stem from routine sauna use are shown to be fairly consistent with the benefits stemming from a moderate exercise regimen.
Covid-19 has obviously put the kibosh on our access to gym saunas. But once things turn around, consider taking advantage of your gym’s facilities when they reopen, or maybe even consider seeking out a gym with heat resources if your gym doesn’t possess one, or if you’re not a current gym member. As more and more science continues to emerge, there appears to be no denying the power of heat.