A growing body of scientific evidence shows that sauna sessions can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, high blood pressure, respiratory diseases and dementia. But is this what actually motivates people to sweat it out in extreme temperatures? Or are they going for other reasons? No one has ever asked.
To find out, a team of researchers, including industry figure Marc Cohen and lead author Joy Hussain, from Australia’s RMIT University conducted the first known global study on sauna-related habits via an online survey.
Data was gathered from 482 men and women with a mean age of 45 years, from 29 countries. A vast number came from either Finland (28.4 per cent), Australia (25.3 per cent) or the US (20.5 per cent) and this bias was noted as a study limitation, along with the fact that it was not randomised sample.
On average, respondents experienced sauna sessions once or twice a week.
The study, published in Elsevier’s Complementary Therapies in Medicine in April, found that relaxation/stress reduction was the top motivation for sauna bathing for all respondents. Other key reasons for using a sauna were to relieve aches and pains (88 per cent), to meet and talk with friends (85 per cent), to help circulation (85 per cent) and for detox (83 per cent).
Increased mental wellbeing was linked to those using a sauna more frequently (five to 15 times a month), compared to those who went less often. An interesting find given that spas are starting to focus on mental wellness, although further research is needed to confirm a definite association.
Eighty-four per cent of respondents said they slept better for one to two nights after having a sauna. Another intriguing correlation as spas continue to embrace sleep health but, once again, a link that requires more scientific investigation.
Inside the sauna, the top three activities reported were relaxation (100 per cent), talking with others (79 per cent) and meditation (68 per cent) – with the last two highlighting the need for operators to handle the balance between those who want quiet and those who don’t.
Two wider contrasting points were brought to light from the results. Firstly, people are going to saunas to help with mental health and sleep, or, in other cases, to ease back pain and musculoskeletal problems. However, there’s no research to prove that heat experiences can actually help any of these ailments.
On the other hand, respondents did not cite high blood pressure or heart conditions as motivators for using a sauna – despite scientific evidence showing it can help. Spas could have a role, no matter how small, in helping to educate people about these proven benefits.