How Heat Therapy Can Help You

Sports Performance | Strength & Conditioning

//  Health Benefits of Heat Therapy for Those Who Train

With our environmental temperature staying in a narrow band year-round certain natural bodily processes go dormant. To thrive as a resilient organism, we need to reintroduce ourselves to extremes. While ice baths have gotten a lot of press in the past few years and the cold does provide a lot of health benefits, deliberate heat exposure has an even greater body of scientific and anecdotal evidence to back it up. So here goes with a guide to why you should get hot on a regular basis, and how a hot bath and heat therapy can help your heart and brain health.

Who Wants to Get All Hot and Bothered?

At face value, getting hot doesn’t seem that great, does it? That is unless you live in a part of the world where you’re struggling through an almost Narnia-level of perma-winter. Warm, sure, but not hot. Yet our bodies are designed to not only function in extreme heat, but also to thrive in it. We’ve just become too accustomed to staying cool in thermostat-controlled scenarios 24/7/365, so now getting even a little warmer than we’re used to can make people freak the heck out (like Ron Burgundy when he declares, “It’s so damn hot. Milk was a bad choice” in Anchorman).

There are plenty of good reasons why Native Americans embraced sweat lodges, Scandinavians swear by their saunas, and Japanese men, women, and even snow monkeys (yeah, you’re reading that right – check out this video) flock to onsens, aka hot springs. Such regular exposure to hot air and water has more than 50 years of scientific studies to back up its efficacy – more on this in a moment – but indigenous peoples the world over kept getting hot because they instinctively knew that it kept them happier, healthier, and less stressed out. 

There could well be several mechanisms at work here, but one of the primary ones involves heat shock proteins (HSPs). For 98 percent of human history, our ancestors were regularly exposed to the heat. It’s only since the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the innovations-turned-crutches that came after it that we stopped getting hot, unless you’re a runner who trains in Death Valley or a similar climate, of course. The upshot? Our HSPs have gone into sleep mode, and with them a powerful way to regulate our immunity, deal with internal and external stressors, and so on. The good news is that you can wake up those sleepy HSPs by simply getting hot two or three times a week (caveat: if you have a pre existing medical condition, please check with your doctor first, and follow the Russian example of drinking water with a pinch of sea salt instead of alcohol while you’re steaming or soaking to make sure you stay hydrated). 

Heat Therapy Benefits for the Heart and Brain

There’s a bevy of evidence to suggest that whether you want to ward off colds and the flu, reduce your risk of a heart attack, or just boost your overall well being, you’d do well to take a soak or a stint in the sauna. 

A long-term study of 2,315 men in Finland followed them from middle age until they became elderly. While regular sauna use didn’t make these fine fellows immortal or reverse the aging process (beware any snake oil salesman who claims otherwise about their pill, potion, or daily practice), it did reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease (37 percent) and all-cause mortality (40 percent – note that other lifestyle factors like exercise and diet may have had some impact on this number). What’s fascinating is that the men who took part in the study didn’t reach the point of diminishing returns until five sessions a week. Summary? A little heat exposure is good, and more (four times a week for around 19 minutes each session seems to be the sweet spot, if you can swing it) is better. 

Another group of researchers evaluated 1,617 people, and noted that participants who used a sauna at least four times a week reduced their risk of having high blood pressure (aka hypertension) by 47 percent. And consistent heat exposure doesn’t only help the body, but also the brain. A third study – again from Finnish scientists, who published their work in the journal Age and Aging – concluded that people who visit the sauna four to seven times (is anyone else detecting a pattern here?) each week were 66 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.

How to Get Started with Heat Therapy?

If your athletes have access to a sauna, have them get in at around 180 degrees for five to 10 minutes, and build up gradually to 19 minutes at 220 degrees or more. If you can hit the heat four times a week or more like those relaxed, healthy-as-a-horse Finns, then all the better. If they do not have access to a sauna simply taking a soak in a hot tub or warm bath for 20 to 45 minutes works. This might not trigger all of the same responses as 20 minutes in a dry or infrared sauna, but will spur heat shock proteins into action. And if they can’t train because of illness, injury, or being stuck at home, you can keep growth hormone levels high and preserve muscle mass without even leaving the bathroom.


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