Making yourself exercise can be one of the hardest steps to take toward getting healthier.
When you’re not an athlete, exercising can be difficult for many reasons. Sometimes it’s a mental block: even though you know you need to and even want to, the thought of starting an exercise program overwhelms you, and it’s easier to just go back to sleep or sit back on the couch and watch another show.
For others it may be more serious. A debilitating health issue can make it impossible. The hallmark of heart disease is a reduced ability to exercise. Injury or fatigue can make the thought of pushing yourself to the gym or even going for a walk feel like climbing Mount Everest. Maybe you’re struggling to get out of bed because the gray cloud of depression or anxiety has dulled your desire and minimized your motivation.
Saunaing actually offers a real solution to getting your heart working without demanding physical strain. Studies support the value of a sauna session as a form of cardiovascular exercise that we call “passive cardio” because it allows you to sit back and relax while your heart gets pumping.
To understand this, let’s first explore WHY exercise helps the body in the first place.
The heart is literally at the heart, or core, of our health and wellbeing. The heart pumps blood throughout our bodies, delivering every vital thing we need to live: oxygen, nutrients, hormones, cells, proteins, sugars, and other body chemistry. When blood flow is blocked in diseases like arteriosclerosis and peripheral artery disease, our organs begin to die and our bodies can’t function. That is why doctors recommend cardiovascular exercise to get the heart pumping. As explained in a Harvard Health Publishing article,1 when you are physically active, your heart learns to beat slower and stronger, which in turn means it requires less oxygen to function well. Your arteries get more pliable, so they push your blood along better. And, your good HDL cholesterol levels go up.
Cardio exercise creates good circulation, providing healthy blood and oxygen flowing through the body resulting in positive effects:
- lungs, heart, organs, and muscles work the way they’re supposed to
- white blood cells are transported around the body and help your immune system protect your body
- waste from your body is removed more effectively
Physical activity also helps prevent diabetes because regular exercise makes muscles more insulin-receptive, which means your body manages blood sugar levels better. And, moving your body also helps your brain. Exercise can reduce depression symptoms because it affects the brain in the same ways antidepressants do to produce serotonin, and many studies have explored a variety of other benefits.2
In a sauna, your body responds to the heat by increasing heart rate, which in turn increases the amount of blood the heart pumps through your body. As we saw above, the benefits to circulation are absolutely essential to a healthy life.
A recent study published in 2019, in Complementary Therapies in Medicine journal, compared participants’ cardiovascular effects in a sauna and on an exercise bike. Researchers concluded the increase in heart rate and blood pressure were similar for a 25-minute sauna session and a dynamic exercise test (a short, moderate workout).3
“A sauna session is a physical strain. Its long-term positive effects are comparable to sports activities,” states the report. The study focused on the benefits to the heart and cardiovascular system rather than on weight loss or muscle development types of exercise.
The study included 19 healthy adult volunteers and examined the reaction of blood pressure (BP) and heart rate (HR) after one intense traditional sauna application. Comparing BP and HR in a sauna session with a dynamic exercise test, sauna bathing was equivalent to a moderate physical exercise load of about 60-100 watts.
Research about the benefits of sauna therapy for the heart began in Japan, where a type of therapy called “waon” was having a known positive effect.4 In fact, according to renowned integrative cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn, the data suggests that saunaing may be one of the most important health habits to prevent and reverse heart disease. After treatments with waon therapy, people demonstrate a greater ability to walk4, whether limited by heart or leg vascular issues.
In waon therapy (from the Japanese words “wa” for “soothing” and “on” for “warmth”), heart patients sit in an infrared sauna set at 60° C (140° F) for 15 minutes, followed by resting outside the sauna for 30 minutes, wrapped in towels.
Research studies of heart patients who receive this soothing warmth therapy have measured healthier arteries. Dr. Kahn explains that waon therapy has been shown to improve function of endothelial cells that line every artery in the body resulting in better health and functionality.
According to Dr. Kahn, this type of infrared therapy may save lives. In a compelling study of 129 patients with bad heart problems, patients treated with waon therapy at least two times a week were compared to similar patients who did not get the therapy. Over five years of follow-up, the rates of re-hospitalization and death were half in the waon-treated patients compared to the others.5
In a 2015 study published in the International Heart Journal, waon infrared sauna therapy improved exercise capacity, quality of life, and mental capacity in patients with advanced heart failure.6
It sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. Research overwhelmingly supports the fact that passive cardio workouts are possible in a sauna and offer hope for getting the benefits of cardio exercise your body needs.
Sit back and relax while your heart gets pumping. Take the next step toward your health goals, no matter where you’re starting. You can feel better!