Culture In Depth Science, 19/07/2017

A Quick Examination of the Benefits of the Sauna

I think I’m becoming addicted to the sauna. My obsession probably started in Iceland, 2010 and I reinforced it later in Hungary and Finland. Now that I’m in Ukraine (and abusing the exchange rate has allowed me a monthly membership to the local gym) it’s becoming a four-times-weekly routine. As my friends warn me, it’s a slippery slope, one minute it’s the occasional steam room, the next full-blown Banya habit.  But it’s a healthy addiction, and this is why:

Hemodynamically saunas are good for the body, they increase the strength of the circulatory system, that much is obvious. More recently they’ve been proven to improve your cardiac health; regular sauna-goers have a reduced risk of a cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, and fatal cardiovascular disease. Additionally, it has the same neuroprotective benefits of aerobic exercise. By increasing blood flow to certain areas of the brain it improves the functioning of executive control, especially in areas to do with memory and attention. Certain studies have linked it to a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

For me, however, the main benefit is psychological. Anecdotally saunas are places to relax, but also to rejuvenate. An experiment in a Japanese sauna showed subjects scored better on both the Profile of Mood States (POMS) and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. An experiment has also been done wherein “group-sweat” therapy has been compared with standard group therapy, and it was found patients participated in the sauna were more receptive to the therapist. Like many of things in psychology, the exact mechanism isn’t known but there’s evidently a reason modulating temperature influences our mental life so strongly.

In my experience you’re forced to concentrate on breathing, sitting, sweating. Certainly, my thoughts slow down as my attention is directed to dealing solely with this immediate change of stimuli, and once I leave the sauna my mind is unusually empty. It’s similar to meditation works, a focus on the present moment, but in a sauna, it arises in a natural and almost effortless way. In fact, any effort you put into it is counter-productive. It’s an age-old example of how we influence the mind via the body.

And it’s also a great place to watch people.

With only minimal interaction I’ve learned a bit more about the Ukrainian mindset whilst sat in the sauna. For example, on a couple of occasions, I felt as if I needed to leave because I sensed an argument was breaking out among the others. But eventually, I realized that they weren’t fighting, merely discussing something. In another instance, as we’re told to leave the sauna at closing time, we get out, wait until the attendant is gone, and then get back in again, waiting for the inevitable dress-down like a bunch of cheeky school kids. I’m not sure if I’d say the Ukrainians are more passionate than the British but these experiences lead me to conclude that asserting an opinion, either through debate or through action, is more commonplace – and certainly doesn’t induce the same social awkwardness it would back home.

I haven’t tried a traditional Banya yet, although according to one of my fellow sauna compatriots the one at the gym was “quite similar” to the one in his dacha. In any case, I’m happy to add the Ukrainian sauna to my list of experiences.

Text: Tom Lee