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Replacing Exercise with Sauna?

Nicholas Noble | October 24, 2019

As a society we battle with achieving recommended exercise levels, particularly in terms of best practices for cardiovascular health and longevity. If not strapped for time we’re often unfathoming of motivation in hitting the gym; even those capably balancing health and lifestyle would welcome the chance to lighten the load when possible thus we ask, “Are the benefits of Sauna too good to be true?” Answers from the latest research might surprise you.

It turns out that recent evidence is compelling because it affirms sauna as a practice that can have dramatic benefits to our physiology, particularly heart health and overall longevity. Granted, no study wishes to discuss it as a complete exercise replacement, but instead it’s suggested as a potent compliment to the exercise that we do get. In fact, it’s part of a growing body of popular resilience training; the health improvements discussed below are similar to establish that through extreme exposures, we can boost our immunity, longevity, willpower, and even our outlook. See here for another popular extreme: Health Benefits of Cold Therapy

Healthy Heat

Historical records indicate ancient origins for sauna across Scandinavia and Asia, with speculation as early as 4000 B.C.E. Furthermore, correlates including Indigenous American peoples’ ‘sweat-lodge’ extend the ideal of ‘health through heat’ globally today there’s science to back it up. 

Also called sauna bathing, published research demonstrates that 15-20min of exposure to controlled heat (around 174°F), as little as 4x per week may lower events of sudden cardiovascular death by more than 50%, also reducing risks of stroke, heart disease, and hypertension at dramatically similar rates. Although suggested as a regular habit for health, as little as one (1) 15min exposure is believed to benefit the body through reduced blood pressure and arterial stiffness (an indicator of cardiovascular health).

Confusing to some, the health associations of a seemingly sedentary experience (simply sitting in the heat) stem from something known as ‘exercise mimetics.’ Just like it sounds, sauna ‘mimics’ or imitates physiological responses to exercise, including increased heart-rate, blood-pressure, perspiration, and production of heat-shock proteins (see below). [1] 

Metabolic Fluctuations

These metabolic fluctuations trigger a cascade of healthy opportunities for our body, maybe best thought as a chance to ‘practice’ our stress response. When taken as a healthy habit, the impacts of sauna analogously ‘reprogram’ our bodies to maintain a healthier and more resilient baseline functionality. These ongoing benefits are suggested to include improved resting vasodilation (especially as measured by nitric oxide, a biomarker for heart health), reduced blood pressure, elevated endothelial and left ventricular function, and notably decreased markers for inflammation. [2] [3]

Moreover, according to key exercise metrics like redistribution of blood-flow, average increased heart rate, and even perspiration, the average sauna session in many ways resembles the effects of medium intensity exercise. That’s important because we notice sauna as an excellent way of stimulating the body’s intrinsic need for exercise. More particularly, this is related to how we’ve evolved, requiring movement and activity levels for our ideal health. 

As a lesser-known fact, our genes are able to respond uniquely to different stressors, an example being special responses each for hot and cold exposure. One great example related to sauna that involves temperature response, the body is able to synthesize what’s known as a shock-proteins, in this case specifically Heat Shock Proteins (HSP). Alongside other endogenous metabolites, not only do these lesser-known compounds improve endurance and survival, they are suggested to improve immunity, and reduce heart disease even cancer. [4] 

Change to our Survival

So, now that we aren’t fighting for survival every day, instead it’s established that we need to trigger the release of these compounds to maintain our health. In terms of sauna use, HSPs are created in order to appropriately regulate inflammatory responses, and other mechanisms in the body like peripheral blood flow. In terms of the inflammatory response, these proteins help encourage glutathione production (one of our body’s most important antioxidants), which helps scavenge against the greater levels of oxidative stress that can occur in high temps. Thus, by cueing our immune system to changes in antioxidant response, these proteins guard against undue inflammation, and can even help other proteins function normally. [5]

The bottom line

Although mentioned are only a handful of specific benefits one may find from sauna, the properties available through it are countless, ranging from influence in how our bodies produce proteins, all the way to our emotional health. As one form of extreme temperature exposure (see its counterpart Cold Therapy), it represents a growing field of study where it’s implicated for potential therapy against virtually every malaise, in-hand with vastly improved longevity where it’s believed to reduce all-cause mortality by up to 40%. [6]

Researchers are also interested in sauna as a preventative measure against cancer, neurodegeneration like Alzheimer’s, and mental health disorders including PTSD. [7] This wide range of currently investigated applications is supported by this global and very ancient phenomenon of heat-therapies. Naturally, many of these suggested applications align comparably to the beneficial outcomes of exercise on disease, demonstrating equally that the chances to exercise or mimic the effects of exercise should both be taken seriously, and even welcomed!

Extreme temperatures and classic exercise are only part of the equation. Through the lens of exercise mimetics, be sure to consider how diet and wise choices in supplements can aid your health by encouraging similar responses.

As a final note, Matcha Tea is an impeccable source of the exercise mimetic benefits of sauna practice. Here’s a couple shared benefits between the two:

  • The catechin antioxidants support healthy blood pressure and elevated nitric oxide levels 
  • The antioxidants also reduce inflammation and prime the metabolism to respond to natural stressors in healthier ways
  • This includes a similarly increased thermogenesis (caloric output) as found otherwise through consistent cardiovascular training
  • Key amino-acids like L-theanine help regulate neurotransmitter activity including dopamine and serotonin

So… what are you waiting for? Double up on that next sauna-sesh with a bowl of matcha first!