Jackie Stiles posing with a basketball
May 11, 2023

What a Former Basketball Player Learned About the Importance of a Sauna Lifestyle

Life Stories, Sleep

Jackie Stiles’ personal experience with rehabbing from a physically demanding basketball career, followed by a health scare, inspired her to install a Sunlighten sauna into her fitness center to boost the well-being of her clients. 

Jackie Stiles is of the most renowned basketball players in the history of the women's game. She led the country in scoring during high school, rewrote the NCAA women's basketball record books and lead her collegiate team to the 2001 Final Four. Stiles was a source of inspiration for so many during her professional career in the WNBA, which she played in until 2006. Now the owner of NexGen Fitness® in Springfield, MO, Stiles also knows a little something about pain and discomfort. “I’ve had a lot of injuries due to my basketball playing career,” she says. “I’ve lost track, but I think I’m up to about 19 surgeries so far in my life.”

While using an infrared sauna as a way to help recover from sports injuries is therapeutic in itself, Stiles had another health hurdle to face after her time on the court was over. In 2018, she was diagnosed with ocular melanoma, a rare type of cancer that affects the eye. Ocular melanoma has an incidence rate of about five million adults, but it is the most common primary cancer in adults, meaning that it starts in the eye but doesn’t spread around the body.

“I was having a conversation with my radiation oncologist, and I vividly remember them swearing by the positive impacts of an infrared sauna,” Stiles says. “So much so that I tucked it into by brain and thought to myself, ‘If I ever open my own fitness studio, I’m going to look into getting a sauna so that my clients can experience the benefits of it to help improve their lives.’”

Jackie Stiles' sleep score on her Garmin watch

Fast forward to remission and ready to conquer another goal, Stiles did open her own personal training fitness center through a NexGen Fitness franchise. At long last, Stiles got her Sunlighten sauna (the Amplify II model) and finally got to step into it. Right away, she took note of some changes happening.

For several years, I’ve had issues sleeping, Stiles says. I can always fall asleep, but I don’t stay asleep. I can tell how crummy my sleep quality is because I track it using my Garmin watch. My sleep score is usually in the 30 to 50 range, and the first night after I used the sauna my sleep score was a 75. It has never been a 75!

Stiles loved how the sauna helped her relax yet didn’t hamper her productivity during the day. “It’s not like you sit in the sauna and then have to go take a nap right after,” she says. “I’m still motivated when I step out of it, but I feel a sense of calm as I move through my day.”

Showing her clients the light: How an infrared sauna is key for recovery

If experience is the best teacher, Stiles’ time in the sauna was more than enough to convince her to make sauna therapy a steady part of her personal training business. “We’re one of the few fitness centers in Springfield, MO to have a sauna, and it’s become a really big selling point for us,” Stiles says. “I only talk about and sell what I genuinely believe in, and I tell everybody I come in contact with that they have to try it because my words alone don’t do it justice.”

While most of her clients use the sauna after a training session for muscle recovery, Stiles makes it known that it’s available for them whenever they need it. “One of my clients is a physician’s assistant, and she came in one morning just to sit in the sauna before work,” Stiles says. “She loved it and said she had one of the most productive days she had in a long time.”

Stiles says that most of her clients aren’t familiar with infrared saunas, so she makes it a point at the beginning of their journey together to educate them, sharing her personal experiences as well as the research behind infrared sauna therapy – from muscle recovery, mood improvement, and even strengthening the immune system. “There truly hasn’t been a single client I’ve come in contact with yet that wasn’t sold after trying it for the first time,” she says.

Stiles continues to use her sauna for her own mental and physical health

Part of physical training is teaching your clients how to listen to their bodies. Yet for a former professional athlete like Stiles, this can be tricky to do yourself. “This is one thing I am really not good at and is probably a big reason behind my 19 surgeries,” Stiles says. “Sometimes our strengths are weaknesses. My drive took me a long way, but it also can hinder me. I find it really difficult to stop and rest.”

As Stiles has matured as an athlete and adult, she’s learned to shift her focus on feeling good versus constantly pushing through. “My job is extremely active, and I can’t afford to be hurt,” she says. “Whether I am coaching, training someone, or running a basketball camp, I always want to make sure I feel good so that I’m giving everyone else my best.”

This has required the way Stiles trains herself to change a bit. She focuses on low or non-impact exercises that puts less stress on her joints and even admits to cutting corners in other areas to make time to sit in her sauna. “If I’m not traveling, I will sit in it for 20 to 30 minutes every night,” she says. “I’ll even skimp on sleep because sitting in my sauna improves the quality of my sleep, so if that means I get less overall sleep but better quality with less sporadic wake ups in the middle of the night, that is more beneficial to me. My mental function the next day is sharper and in my line of work and day-to-day life, I really value that.”

How Stiles’ training philosophy complements infrared sauna therapy

When it comes to personal training, Stiles is a big proponent of tailoring each plan to a specific client and their needs. “I'm not a believer in a big group class where everybody is doing the same workout with different backgrounds, fitness levels, and injury concerns,” she says. “My goal is to help each person be the best version of themselves. So, my training plan is going to look different each time, but it’s in an effort for them to reach their individual goals and to stay pain-free in their active life.”

“The energy exercise gives you is so important,” she adds. “Some days are going to be hard, but I want my clients to come in because they know how great they're going to feel when they're done.” Having the ability to pair that personalized training experience with infrared sauna therapy for recovery is the icing on the cake, or perhaps to speak in basketball terms – the buzzer-beater at the end of the game. Everyone will have their own personal reasons for needing time in a sauna, from recovery, to reducing stress, improving sleep and more. Stiles says that having access to a tool to help you achieve your own wellness goals has made her personal training business that much more impactful.

“It’s something that I really hope more trainers look into implementing in their own fitness centers down the road,” Stiles says. “In addition to my own improved recovery and sleep, it’s become a big part of ensuring I am able to give our clients the best experience possible.”

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WRITTEN BY: Colleen Travers

Colleen Travers is a health and wellness freelance writer focusing on all things that make you feel healthy and happy from the inside out.  She's been an editor for sites such as FitnessMagazine.com and DoctorOz.com Her work has appeared online in outlets like Reader's Digest, SHAPE, HuffPost Life, Peloton, Fitbit, MindBodyGreen, and more.