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Finnish people have been using saunas for more than 2,000 years, but it wasn’t until recently that celebrities caught on, turning tradition into trend and reopening the conversation about the health and cosmetic benefits of a great (inactive) sweat session.
Selena Gomez touted infrared saunas for her slim figure and glowing skin, and stars like Gwyneth Paltrow, Lea Michele, Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, Demi Moore, and the Kardashians cosign. But the perks of heating up were not backed by science, and critics argued that long-term benefits, calorie burn, heart and brain health, detoxification, or weight loss were unlikely.
“All in all, saunas appear safe for the body, but there is little evidence that they have health benefits above and beyond relaxation and a feeling of well-being,” said Dr. Harvey Simon, the editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. “But patients with poorly controlled blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, unstable angina, and advanced heart failure or heart valve disease will probably be advised to stay cool.”
Now, Finnish researchers have set out to prove the benefits they’ve been experiencing for centuries. A study from the University of Eastern Finland found a link between sauna visits and memory diseases after following more than 2,300 middle-aged Finnish men for more than 20 years.
The study found that men who spent time in the sauna four to seven times per week were 66 percent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia, and 65 percent less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, compared with men who used the sauna once a week.
Previous results of the study showed that men who spend time in the sauna seven times per week were less likely to die of heart problems. “In the sauna, the heart rate increases and we start to sweat. This is a bit like physical exercise,” said Jari Laukkanen, senior researcher and a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Eastern Finland.
He added, “After sauna, you may have lower blood pressure, and blood pressure is an important risk factor in cardiovascular and memory diseases. This may be one possible explanation for our findings.”
“We have taken into account other lifestyle factors, like physical activity and socioeconomic factors. … There is an independent effect of sauna on these outcomes,” Laukkanen said.
While the sauna is not a replacement for getting your body moving, this research confirms that the calorie burn and heart health benefits are similar. According to the Mayo Clinic, a person weighing around 160 pounds will burn about 300 calories during a 30-minute session in the sauna, though that number is dependent on your individual basal metabolic rate, as well as the temperature of the sauna and the amount of time you spend in the heat.
There’s no substitute for building strength, increasing physical movement, and using your muscles, but adding a regular sweat sesh to your routine like Selena could definitely do you good.