Saunas Boost Heart Health, Study Suggests

Scientists believe visiting the sauna could be good for the heart. Getty Images

Basking in the hot steam of a sauna could cut the risk of dying of heart disease, according to a study.

Using the sauna four to seven times a week was associated with a lower chance of experiencing a fatal heart condition compared with those who went just once a week. And those who visited the sauna for over 45 minutes per week in total were at lower risk than those who spent 15 minutes per week. Most Finnish saunas feature dry air with a humidity of around 10 to 20 percent, with a temperature of between 80 to 100C at head-level, and 30C at foot, according to the authors of the study published in the journal BMC Medicine.

Research already shows using the sauna seems to have a raft of health benefits, from controlling blood pressure levels to preventing strokes and diseases which affect the brain and lungs, the authors noted. But most of these studies largely involved men. So researchers in Finland—where sauna bathing is popular—wanted to provide new insight involving a more diverse cohort of participants.

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Teams at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyväskylä studied data from a study on sauna use and heart disease collected between 1998 and 2015. The almost even split of 1,688 men and women who took part in the study had an average age of 63 years, and lived in or near the city of Kuopio, in the east of Finland. The participants completed questionnaires detailing how often they used the sauna.

Researchers noted the cases of deaths related to heart conditions in the time the data was collected in documents such as hospital and health centre records, and death certificates.

Using the sauna appeared to benefit heart health, even when the data was adjusted to take into account other risk factors.

Dr. Gina Lundberg of the American Heart Association who was not involved in the research told Newsweek previous studies have made similar findings, and this new research therefore provides further confirmation saunas could be good for heart health.

However, Professor Jari Laukkanen, co-author of the study and a cardiologist at the University of Jyväskylä, told Newsweek the study was significant because it included women and older people, unlike other studies.

"Sauna might be a new additional tool to improve cardiovascular health, relaxation and general wellbeing, in addition to physical activity and good diet," said Laukkanen.

Hot tubs and steam rooms may also be useful, however there is less data on their health effects, he said.

But sauna use isn't for everyone Laukkanen stressed, warning those with cardiac symptoms to be careful with such facilities, particularly if resting blood pressure is already low.

Lundberg added the findings could be limited, she suggested, because the study was based on observational data from people reporting sauna use in questionnaires. In the future, a randomized control study could provide more accurate answers.

"People who have access and time for saunas likely have higher education, higher income,healthier diet, and more leisure time," she pointed out, referring to factors linked with better quality health.

"It would also be important to see what other health habits and socioeconomic data are found in patients who use saunas routinely."

Commenting broadly on how heart health can be protected, Lundberg said: "Most people undervalue the importance of healthy habits such as routine exercise and healthy plant based diet in addition to stress reduction. These are less cost than a sauna and available to more people."

Sticking to a heart-healthy routine is key, she said.

"Saunas won't replace a poor diet or other poor health habits. But saunas in addition to other healthy habits is likely the important issue."