FULL STEAM AHEAD
HOW A HEART-HEALTHY SAUNA HABIT CAN GRANT A LONGER, HEALTHIER LIFE
It seems as though every time we pick up a health-related magazine, we read a new report about the benefits of vigorous exercise or the wonders of a sound nutrition regimen. Of course, exercise can be fun if you have the time and inclination, and sprouts and broccoli can be pleasant enough on the plate.
But when are we going to read an article touting the wonders of something we really like? Wouldn’t it be great to see some research showing that we can bolster our immune systems, slash our risk of heart disease, lose weight and even prolong our lives by just vegging out and relaxing?
Well here it is, a veritable symphony of beautiful music to the ears of anyone who ever dreamed of getting healthy by doing nothing: A brand-new study out of the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio suggests that just lazing in a sauna for a few minutes four to seven days a week can increase longevity and lower the odds of cardiac arrest.
The study followed 2,300 men for 20 years. The subjects began by filling out questionnaires asking how often they visited a sauna and how long they stayed in. Incredibly, study author and cardiologist Dr. Jari Laukkanen found that the more often the men used the sauna, and the longer they stayed in, the more resistant they were to sudden heart attack.
“There was an inverse relationship between sauna and heart attack risk,” Laukkanen says. “In other words, more is better. It seems that more than four sauna sessions a week had the lowest risk. But even people who have two or three sessions a week may get some benefits.”
In fact, the risk of death from any cause plummeted from 49 percent for the ones who sauna-bathed least frequently to 31 percent for the ones who took a sauna most often.
This good news, as exciting as it may be to most of the world, comes as no surprise to the Finns for whom saunas are nothing less than a way of life. In Finland (a nation of 5.5 million), there are 3.3 million saunas. Another way to put it: Saunas are as common as TVs there.
And remarkably, contrary to the mythical image of the super-fit Finnish cross-country skier, evidence indicates the average Finn actually spends more time lounging in the sauna than pumping iron or poling through the snow.
Of course, the “sweat bath” idea is not exclusive to the Scandinavians. Other cultures have used the same principle for centuries. The Africans have their sifutu, the Turks have the hammam, the Native Americans use “sweat lodges” — even the Ancient Romans had their thermae. All of these involve the same principle: stimulating heavy perspiration with the use of intense heat — wet or dry — in a small, enclosed space.
But for the purposes of Laukkanen’s study, we’re talking specifically about the Finnish sauna, in which a room is brought to a temperature of 40 to 100 degrees Celsius (104 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit) with dry heat.
And there’s more good news. This University of Eastern Finland research is only the latest in a long list of findings that demonstrate the health-giving powers of the sauna.
These days, saunas are much more commonly seen throughout Europe than they used to be. Elsewhere, more spas, gyms and health clubs are making them part of the draw to pull new members in. Obviously, some are better than others. But you don’t have to go to Scandinavia to find one that fits the requirements indicated in the Laukkanen study. Once you find a sauna to call your own, just sit back, relax and let the heat work its magic.
ALTHOUGH IT WAS RENOVATED IN 1999, ITS ARCHITECTURE HAS REMAINED UNCHANGED SINCE IT WAS BUILT IN 1928.