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Do Saunas Burn Calories?

woman sweating and relaxing in a sauna

Jane Kuperberg |

In the quest for relaxation and wellness, many have found solace in the gentle embrace of a sauna's warmth. But beyond the immediate comfort and relaxation, there's a lingering question: what exactly does a sauna do for our metabolism and calorie count?

How many calories can you burn in a sauna session?

While it's tempting to equate the intense heat and profuse sweating in a sauna to to an intensive workout, the reality is a bit more nuanced. The number of calories one can burn in a sauna session varies depending on several factors, including:

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Metabolism
  • Duration 
  • Temperature

On average, a person might burn between 300 to 600 calories in an hour-long sauna session. However, it's crucial to note that a significant portion of this caloric expenditure is the body working to cool itself down, rather than a direct result of physical exertion as in traditional workouts.

So, while saunas can provide a supplementary calorie burn, they shouldn't replace regular exercise routines. It's always recommended to consult with a health professional to understand the most beneficial and safe practices tailored to individual needs.

pouring water on huum sauna stones

The science behind saunas and calorie burning

Saunas, with their invigorating heat, work primarily on the principle of raising one's core body temperature. As the body's temperature rises, it kicks into overdrive to counteract this warmth, resulting in an accelerated heart rate and increased blood flow.

This physiological response is somewhat similar to the effects of mild exercise. The body, in its effort to cool down, starts to sweat profusely, and the heart pumps faster to circulate blood more efficiently. This increased circulation and the body's effort to maintain homeostasis through sweating and regulating temperature lead to calorie consumption.

While the calorie burn might not be as substantial as an intense workout, it's still a metabolic process requiring energy. Additionally, the elevated heart rate is akin to the effects of cardiovascular exercise, albeit on a smaller scale.

However, it's essential to underscore that while saunas do contribute to calorie burning, they do so in a passive manner, and their primary benefits lie more in relaxation and potential detoxification than in weight loss.

Does the temperature of the sauna impact calorie burn?

The temperature of the sauna plays a pivotal role in determining the calorie burn rate. The hotter the environment, the more the body works to regulate its core temperature.

As the sauna's temperature rises, the body is subjected to increasing heat stress, prompting the heart to pump faster and the sweat glands to work overtime. This escalation in bodily functions requires energy, leading to a higher caloric expenditure.

However, there's a caveat. While a hotter sauna might lead to a more immediate and pronounced calorie burn, there's a threshold beyond which extended exposure could become detrimental.

Prolonged sessions in extremely high temperatures can lead to dehydration or heat-related illnesses. As always, it's about finding a balance: the right temperature that induces sweat and increased metabolism without pushing the body into a state of distress. It's always prudent to monitor one's response and adjust the temperature to suit individual comfort and safety.

two woman walking outside towards an outdoor sauna

Infrared vs. Traditional saunas: Which one is better?

The ongoing debate between infrared and traditional saunas often centers on their mechanisms of action and the resulting health benefits. Traditional saunas use heat to warm the air, which in turn warms the body, while infrared saunas use infrared light waves to directly heat the body without significantly warming the surrounding air. This direct heating from infrared saunas can lead to a more substantial increase in core body temperature at a lower ambient temperature than traditional saunas.

From a calorie-burning perspective, the increased core temperature from both types of saunas prompts the body to work hard, leading to calorie expenditure. However, some proponents argue that the direct penetration of infrared rays might induce a more significant metabolic response, potentially resulting in a higher calorie burn.

Studies have shown that infrared saunas might lead to a two to three times higher sweat volume than traditional ones, suggesting more intense detoxification and potentially higher caloric expenditure.

That said, it's essential to understand that neither type offers the kind of calorie burn one might achieve with rigorous exercise. Both infrared and traditional saunas offer unique benefits, with the primary advantage being relaxation and potential detoxification rather than intense calorie burning.

As with all wellness practices, individual experiences can vary, and it's always best to approach with informed expectations and prioritize personal comfort and safety.

FIR sauna. (A, B) Comparison of FIR sauna with conventional heated sauna. (C) Cabin incorporating FIR emitting  “ cold ”  unit(s)

The importance of hydration

Hydration is a critical component when considering the metabolic processes of the body, especially in environments like saunas where there's a significant loss of fluids through sweating. When the body is dehydrated, even slightly, metabolism tends to slow down. The reason is that our cells require water to produce energy, and in a dehydrated state, this energy production becomes less efficient.

  Institute of Medicine’s Water Intake RecommendationsInstitute of Medicine’s Water Intake Recommendations

In a sauna, as the body works to cool itself through sweating, there's a substantial loss of fluids and essential minerals. This increased fluid loss, if not replenished, can impede the body's ability to burn calories efficiently. While the immediate effects of dehydration might lead to a temporary increase in calorie burn due to the body's heightened efforts to cool down, this is not sustainable or beneficial in the long run.

Furthermore, proper hydration ensures optimal blood volume, facilitating better circulation and helping the heart pump blood more efficiently. In turn, better circulation aids the metabolic processes related to calorie burning. So, while saunas can contribute to calorie burning, it's vital to maintain hydration levels to ensure the body operates at its best. Drinking water before, during, and after a sauna session is crucial, not just for optimizing calorie burn but for overall health and well-being.

outdoor barrel sauna lifestyle mockup in naturistic setting

How to maximize calorie burn

The ideal duration one should spend in a sauna to achieve the maximum calorie burn is a nuanced matter, largely influenced by individual factors such as tolerance to heat, health status, and hydration levels.

Generally, for most individuals, a 15-30 minute session in a sauna can elevate the heart rate, promote sweating, and boost metabolism, leading to calorie burn. Extending beyond this timeframe might lead to an increased calorie burn, but the diminishing returns set in concerning potential risks like dehydration and overheating.

Risks to look out for when sauna bathing

It's important to note that while longer sessions may intensify the calorie-burning process due to sustained elevated heart rate and body temperature, they also increase the potential for adverse effects. Overextended stays can lead to dehydration, dizziness, or even heat exhaustion in extreme cases.

Listening to one's body is of paramount importance. If one feels dizzy, nauseated, or excessively uncomfortable at any point, it's a sign to exit and cool down. It's also wise to gradually build up one's tolerance. Someone new to saunas might start with shorter sessions and gradually increase as they become more accustomed.

In conclusion, while there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer, a balanced approach of 15-30 minutes, combined with regular hydration and attention to individual comfort, can optimize calorie burn without compromising safety.

Conclusion

In the vast landscape of wellness and relaxation, saunas emerge as an oasis of warmth and rejuvenation. Their allure extends beyond the immediate comfort, diving into the profound effects on metabolism and overall health.

While the gentle embrace of a sauna might not be a substitute for the rigors of a full-fledged workout, its holistic benefits—ranging from detoxification to potential calorie burn—cannot be discounted. But as with any pursuit of wellness, understanding, moderation, and a keen attention to one's body are the cornerstones to deriving the best out of the experience.

Remember, the journey to wellness is personal, and each experience, whether it's a run in the park or a steamy session in a sauna, is but a chapter in the larger story of well-being.

Key Takeaways:

  • Calorie Burning: Saunas may aid in calorie burning, but they are no substitute for traditional workouts.
  • Physiological Response: Saunas elevate heart rate and increase blood circulation, akin to mild exercise.
  • Temperature Matters: A hotter sauna can lead to a higher caloric expenditure, but it's essential to strike a balance for safety.
  • Infrared vs. Traditional: Both have their unique benefits with arguments suggesting infrared might have a slight edge in terms of caloric burn.
  • Hydration is Key: Water intake before, during, and after a sauna session is essential for metabolism and overall health.
  • Duration: Optimal times range between 15-30 minutes, depending on individual tolerance and hydration levels.

Remember, at the heart of every wellness journey is the individual. It's always about what works best for you, aligned with knowledge, safety, and intuition.

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