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It turns out that your resident gym creep who spends all his time in the sauna may be onto something. For the active gymgoer, a quick steam or sauna session increases blood circulation, which can reduce joint pain and recovery time. As for which is more useful: It doesn’t matter, according to Kyle Goerl, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Kansas State University. Studies on both have yielded comparable effects on long-term health, muscle recovery, joint-pain relief, and stress reduction.
“We’ve seen these benefits with many forms of recovery bathing, including traditional saunas, infrared saunas, steam rooms, and hot tubs,” Goerl says.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research found that applying dry or moist heat directly to the quads after 15 minutes of squats significantly reduced the symptoms of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). And a 2018 study from Finland showed 30 minutes in the sauna made blood vessels more flexible and boosted heart rate to moderate-exercise levels.
“Some like dry saunas, some like steam, some like hot tubs, and some combine their practice with cold water immersion,” Goerl says. “If you’re healthy and you enjoy a form of heat treatment, go for it. It certainly isn’t going to hurt, and you may find it a valuable part of your exercise regimen.”