Spark It or Scrap It: Can Saunas Help You Lose Weight?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When it comes to saunas and steam rooms, there seem to be two types of people: Those who can’t get enough and those who can’t understand the appeal. If you fall in the latter group, you may be wondering what all the sweaty hype is about. Could sauna sessions give you a health or weight loss boost—or are the claims full of hot air? We asked some fitness experts to weigh in.
Do Saunas Help with Weight Loss?
If sitting in a hot room and sweating away the pounds seems too good to be true, that's because it most likely is. While sweating does deliver some benefits to the body, there is very limited evidence that sauna use directly aids in safe, sustained weight loss.
"Saunas can be a great way to relax after a workout, but they won’t be any help when it comes to reaching your weight loss goals," says SparkPeople coach Jen Mueller. "Although you will sweat more, which can lead to a loss of water weight, that weight will quickly return as soon as you rehydrate."
If you think using saunas as a means of rapid weight loss is a good idea, think again. The practice has been exposed as having dangerous side effects, particularly with wrestling and other weight-focused sports. "Excessive use in an attempt to achieve rapid weight loss has been shown to decrease exercise performance in almost all categories, and in combination with dehydration can lead to serious health risks," says Alexander McBrairty, NASM certified personal trainer with A-Team Fitness.
So if saunas don't help with weight loss, what's the appeal? Read on for the perks of perspiration.
Saunas & Heart Health
Want to reduce your chances of dying from a heart attack? Get your sweat on. “Research has linked regular sauna use with greater longevity and a lower risk of heart disease,” says Mike Matthews, bestselling fitness author and creator of and Legion Athletics.
In a study of more than 2,300 men in Finland, those who underwent two to three weekly sauna sessions were 23 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease (CHD) and 27 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD). The risk decreased to 48 percent (for CHD) and 50 percent (for CVD) when the men visited the sauna four to seven times a week.
Chronic Symptom Relief
If you suffer from a chronic disease, regular sauna use is a natural way to alleviate certain symptoms. "Research indicates that regular sauna baths can lower blood pressure in hypertensive individuals, and improve heart function in those with chronic congestive heart failure," says McBrairty. "It may also improve symptoms of asthma or bronchitis, as well as joint mobility and pain management in individuals with rheumatic disease."
Some research also suggests that thermal therapy—including regular sauna use—may improve insulin sensitivity, which can result in more efficient fat burning during workouts, says McBrairty.
Can You Sweat Away Toxins?
While the body has natural systems in place to cleanse itself through the digestive process, the skin also serves as a giant detoxing tool. "The skin is the largest organ in the body and a great portal for releasing built-up toxins," says fitness trainer Cheryl Russo.
Sweating has been shown to flush out toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. If you don’t regularly break a sweat throughout the course of the day, periodic sauna sessions could help kick-start this process (although they shouldn’t be treated as a substitute for healthy eating and regular exercise.)
Improved Muscle Recovery
Ever wonder why sitting in a sauna feels so good after a grueling workout? Franklin Antoian, one of Shape magazine's top 50 trainers in America and founder of, explains: "Heat from the sauna or steam room relaxes your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints, increasing flexibility. As an added benefit, oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the tissues that have worked so hard during your workout, helping to repair them quicker."
The high temperatures also stimulate the production of growth hormones, which aid in post-exercise muscle recovery.
What to Know Before You Sweat
To stay safe and get the most out of your sauna sessions, follow these best practices:
  • In general, saunas are safe for healthy adults, pregnant women and those with stable heart conditions. That said, first-timers should start out slowly with short sessions (five to 10 minutes) and stay hydrated.
  • As with any health or fitness device, always follow the manufacturer's instructions and precautions.
  • Don't go barefoot. "Like in a shower, there is risk of getting a fungus or plantar’s warts, so wear flip-flops," advises fitness trainer Kim Schaper.
  • Avoid eating anything two hours before a sauna visit and one hour afterward, but be sure to drink plenty of water. "You need to replenish the lost fluid. Plus, the more water you consume, the more your lymphatic system continues to work to pass the toxins through the body," Schaper says.
  • Always shower after using a sauna to fully remove any residual toxins from the skin's surface, Schaper recommends.
  • Check with your doctor before incorporating sauna sessions into your regular fitness regimen, particularly if you're pregnant or have a previous heart condition.
Although saunas can help you release toxins, repair muscles and prevent heart disease risk, they're not a miracle weight loss tool. "To lose weight that will stay off permanently, stick with a healthy diet and regular exercise," Coach Jen recommends.
Have you ever tried a sauna or steam room? Did you notice any benefits?

Join us each month as we sift through the so-called life hacks and miracle cures to get to the bottom of the latest buzzworthy trend. Get the facts and decide for yourself if you should Spark It or Scrap It