Heating your body has been a tested and proven technique for recovery since 500 B.C., when ancient Egyptian doctors acknowledged the therapeutic power of the sun’s rays and utilized them alongside thermal baths, mud baths, and hot air caverns. In fact, the ancient and worldwide culture of bathhouses serves as the inspiration behind what we now know as modern spas, specifically saunas and steam rooms, which can now be found in various gyms and recovery studios, rather than just upscale day spas.
Athletes and wellness enthusiasts have long been revitalizing and unwinding with heat therapy, but saunas and steam rooms offer distinct experiences. So which option should you choose for a soothing recovery routine? Here’s how the advantages of a sauna compare to those of a steam room, and how to make the most of each heat therapy to enhance your recovery.
What Is a Steam Room?
A steam room — sometimes referred to as a steam bath — is exactly what it sounds like: a room filled with steam. Steam is produced by a generator with boiling water (or, in a manual steam room, hot water is poured over heated stones), resulting in a room filled with hot moisture.
“A steam room’s ambient air temperature ideally falls between 100 and 115 degrees, with humidity levels nearing 100 percent,” explains Peter Tobiason, the founder and CEO of LIVKRAFT Performance Wellness, a center for recovery and health in La Jolla, CA.
Spas and medical professionals typically recommend that you spend no more than 15 minutes in a steam room. Going beyond that duration puts you at risk of dehydration.
The Benefits of Steam Rooms
Aside from the pleasant sensation on your skin, steam rooms can also have tangible physical effects on your body. Here are some of the key benefits of steam rooms.
“Steam outshines both dry and infrared saunas when it comes to combating nasal congestion,” notes Tobiason. “One of the main advantages of steam rooms is their ability to alleviate upper respiratory congestion. Inhaling steam, often combined with eucalyptus oil, promotes vasodilation in the sinuses, clearing nasal passages and relieving congestion.” It’s almost like immersing yourself in one large diffuser of essential oils.
But it’s perhaps optimal to avoid public steam rooms during the cold and flu season, cautions Tobiason. You could heighten your chances of “catching bugs and viruses from everyone who shares the same notion,” he reveals. To enjoy similar advantages, you could attempt hanging eucalyptus on your shower head and indulging in a lengthy, steamy shower at home, or explore one of these home remedies for sinus infections.
Foster mental and muscular relaxation
Being in a steam room can give the impression that stress is evaporating from your body. Your muscles unwind from the warmth, and you can slip into a more serene state, shares Tobiason. Some steam rooms even employ essential oils to intensify the calming experience.
“Wet heat” (unpleasant, but acceptable), such as what you would encounter in a steam room, can enhance circulation, according to research disclosed by Harvard Medical School. Improved circulation aids overall well-being and organ function, as well as the development of a robust immune system. That’s because when your blood and oxygen flow freely throughout your body, they are transporting particular blood cells that can help combat infection via your bloodstream.
What Is a Sauna?
A sauna is the dry counterpart of a steam room. “A traditional sauna or ‘dry sauna’ utilizes a wood, gas, or electric stove with heated rocks to create an extremely low-humidity, dry setting with temperatures ranging from 180 to 200 degrees,” states Tobiason. As per historical resources, this form of dry heating has been employed since the Neolithic era (though the Finns receive full credit for inventing the contemporary sauna over 2000 years ago).
It is suggested that you spend a maximum of 20 minutes in a dry sauna. Once again, becoming dehydrated is a significant risk of overindulging in the sauna (regardless of how pleasant that dry heat may feel).
You may also be acquainted with infrared saunas, the modern advancement of the age-old sauna. The heat source in an infrared sauna is infrared light, rather than a stove, which penetrates the skin, muscles, and even your cells, explains Tobiason. “This raises your core body temperature to induce sweating and cool the body, as opposed to your body solely reacting to the external ambient air temperature of a dry sauna or steam.”
In an infrared sauna, the body warms up at a lower air temperature, ranging from 135 to 150 degrees. This means you can spend more time in a sauna with a reduced “risk of dehydration and any cardiovascular concerns,” notes Tobiason. Depending on your tolerance, physical condition, and clearance from your healthcare provider, you can spend up to 45 minutes in an infrared sauna.
The Advantages of Saunas
Wondering how the sauna vs. steam room compare? Here’s more on the advantages of saunas, which partly depend on which variety of sauna you select — traditional or infrared.
Similar to steam rooms, saunas also aid in increasing circulation by expanding blood vessels. A Swedish study published in 2018 even demonstrated that saunas could offer “short-term enhancement in cardiac function,” suggesting saunas have potential as a lifestyle treatment modality for heart failure.
Research has discovered that infrared sauna usage can result in statistically significant reductions in pain and stiffness in individuals with lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia. That’s likely because when you’re in an infrared sauna, your blood vessels relax and expand, and blood flow increases, which can help alleviate tension in the joints and relieve sore muscles. Saunas might also benefit those with chronic pain and arthritis.
Enhance athletic recovery
Studies have indicated that saunas can aid in reducing soreness and tension in muscles, which can expedite recovery after a workout. For example, a 2015 study on infrared saunas from the Department of Biology of Physical Activity at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland examined 10 athletes and their recovery. After a strength training workout, they spent 30 minutes in the hot box. The conclusion? Infrared sauna time is “beneficial for the neuromuscular system to recuperate from maximal endurance performance.”
Indulge in lengthier relaxation sessions
In an infrared sauna, you can “allow your body more time to experience a profound, detoxifying sweat,” says Tobiason. That’s because you can spend much more time in there compared to both a steam room and a traditional sauna. “This means your muscles, joints, and skin are receiving more time with beneficial infrared rays,” he adds.
How to Get the Most Out of Your Steam Room and Sauna Sessions
Whether you opt for a steam room or sauna, there are several suggestions you can follow to maximize your heat therapy experience. That being said, consult with your doctor before attempting either option to ensure that you are cleared to safely enjoy saunas or steam rooms. “As always, consult with a qualified medical professional before participating in any type of infrared sauna, steam, or dry sauna session,” cautions Tobiason.
“The primary thing to remember with any heat therapy is to ensure you’re adequately hydrated!” says Tobiason. “Hydration is crucial for safety and session optimization. Proper hydration enables your body’s processes to function efficiently.
Bring a container to fill with water and follow elements or electrolytes for prior to, during, and subsequent to your session.
Shower prior to an infrared sauna session
“Cleansing yourself before [an infrared sauna session] can expedite the process of perspiring in an infrared sauna by unclogging the pores on your dermis and easing the tension in your muscles,” he states. “Essentially, this serves as a ‘warm-up’ for your session.” (And in case you were curious, here’s precisely what occurs when you cease showering.)
“Attempt comprehensive cryotherapy or an ice bath prior to your sauna session,” says Tobiason. “This can enhance the circulation of all the ‘fresh’ blood that was recently delivered to you through the cold therapy.” (Also: Should You Take a Hot or Cold Shower After a Workout?)
Brush without moisture
“Before your session, allocate three to five minutes to dry brushing to intensify your perspiration,” he reveals. “Dry brushing augments circulation” and also stimulates lymphatic drainage.
“Indulge in a refreshing shower [whether you choose a sauna vs. steam room] to seal the pores,” says Tobiason. “This prevents further perspiration and reabsorption of the toxins you have recently expelled.