Sauna and Exercise Together Are Great for Health

Data from a long-term observational study in Finland show a stunning association of sauna bathing with a lowered  risk of Alzheimer’s and other memory diseases. The more frequently you sauna, the lower your risk. We interviewed Prof. Jari Laukkanen, a principal researcher in the study, from the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, to get more details.

Professor Laukkanen,  a practicing cardiologist, has been involved with this ongoing study since the 1990s, focusing on sauna, fitness, and activity level. The population studied  for the past 20 years is middle-aged men.  Finland has a population of 5.5 million, and there are 3 million saunas; poor and rich alike benefit from sauna bathing.

When asked for his personal advice to American sauna users, Professor Laukkanen said: “My recommendation is to please do some exercise first, and after exercise some sauna. It is a perfect combination, giving you some health benefits and relaxation afterwards.”

Many Factors Studied

“We have studied how fitness is related to cardiovascular diseases, but in this recent part of the study we adjusted for activity level and fitness, which means that activity level alone does not explain the findings,” Professor Laukkanen said.

“In the past, we found that physical activity is important as a protective factor, and that a better level of physical fitness is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. This is why we were interested in the association between sauna and cardiovascular and memory diseases. There are some studies showing that the brain and the heart are somehow correlated. Blood circulation is also important for the brain, so that’s how we came to the idea that there may be an association between sauna and memory diseases.”

The population study also looked at how diet and obesity are related to common chronic diseases. It  is a very long-term and well planned study, where the same population has been followed for years.

“We have seen that all the factors we studied are independent. Exercise is important and sauna is important. In future studies we would like to explore how the combination of exercise and sauna could be even more beneficial,” Professor Laukkanen said.

Looking for the Underlying Mechanism

sauna-and-exercise“What is your future direction?” I asked.

“We want to explore in more detail the possible underlying mechanisms that may explain our findings, Professor Laukkanen answered. “There is some evidence that sauna may lower blood pressure, and blood pressure is a factor in memory diseases and cardiovascular diseases. There is some evidence that sauna may improve vascular function–endothelial function–and maybe sauna itself can moderate the autonomic nervous system. It may somehow help our stressful body, and this can be a possible explanation. Our future goal is to show in more detail the factors that may be behind our current findings in the study.”

The study so far has followed a large group of middle-aged men, so I asked whether the study plans to widen the target population. “Yes,” Professor Laukkanen said. “It is important to see if these findings are true and similar in other populations, such as females. Maybe in the future we will also study those who are younger, and also older.”

Saunas a `Happy, Healthy Factor’ in Risk Reduction

“Would you advise physicians to recommend sauna bathing for patients to reduce their risk of cardiovascular and memory diseases?” I asked.

“That’s a good point,” Professor Laukkanen replied. “Why not? But we have to remember that there are also other factors. People have to keep up exercise, focus on a good diet, among other factors. But sauna can be one happy, healthy factor among the others. So I would recommend it as one part of risk reduction and prevention of cardiovascular diseases and also in the case of memory diseases.”

February 27, 2017 •