Many people enjoy steam rooms and saunas because there's just something about them that makes you feel like you're doing something healthy. But working up a sweat while you sit around in a towel for 20 minutes is not equivalent to a cardiovascular workout, so don't kid yourself. Even more, the purported benefits of steam rooms are questionable -- and there are some risks you should know about.
The two major health claims surrounding steam rooms and saunas are detoxification of the skin and weight loss, but neither one has been substantiated. According to Dee Anna Glaser, a dermatology professor at St. Louis University, the function of sweating in a steam room is just to cool the body. The liver and kidneys do a great job of detoxifying the body, so there really aren't many toxins in the sweat glands that need to be removed. As for weight loss, any weight you lose in a steam room is water weight that you'll regain as soon as you drink something. Stress relief is probably the only real potential benefit of steam rooms, but only for those who find sitting in them relaxing.
Not Equivalent to Cardio
Cardiovascular exercise has many benefits, including improved heart health and body composition. The average person can burn about 200 calories with 20 minutes of running while simultaneously reducing stress, improving bone density and exercising the body's most important muscle -- the heart. As dreamy as it may sound to get the same benefits from sitting in a steam room, the idea is nothing more than a fantasy. Don't throw away your running shoes.
Sitting in a steam room is actually unhealthy for some people. Those who suffer from acne, broken capillaries or melasma should stay out of steam rooms because the conditions can be exacerbated by heat. The heat also causes the pulse and blood pressure to rise, which can be dangerous for those with hypertension or heart conditions. Extreme temporary weight loss from dehydration can have a negative effect on strength, particularly in women.
Precautions and Tips
Talk with your doctor before starting a new exercise program or sitting in a steam room to make sure you're healthy enough for it. Also, the heat and moisture of steam rooms make them prime breeding grounds for nasty bacteria. Never enter a steam room with bare feet and always make sure your skin is covered and not in contact with the benches. It's also a good idea to take a shower afterward.
- Columbia Daily Tribune: Experts Say Purported Steam Room Benefits are Not So Hot
- Glamour.com: Question of the Day: Do Saunas and Steam Rooms Have Any Real Health Benefits?
- Harvard Health Publications: Sauna Health Benefits : Are Saunas Healthy or Harmful?
- International Journal of Sports Medicine; Sauna-Induced Rapid Weight Loss Decreases Explosive Power in Women But Not in Men
- New York Times: Personal Health
Jessica Bell has been working in the health and fitness industry since 2002. She has served as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Bell holds an M.A. in communications and a B.A. in English.