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Kickstart healing with 10 minutes of steam

This week, I’d like to talk to you about sauna and steam, which are commonly used by many athletes and amateur fitness enthusiasts as forms of recovery, writes Heath Matthews.

health and fitness Updated: Apr 12, 2010 18:43 IST
Heath Matthews

This week, I’d like to talk to you about sauna and steam, which are commonly used by many athletes and amateur fitness enthusiasts as forms of recovery. I’ll outline the benefits of the two and give you a comparison on which is a better form of recovery from your training.

The basic difference between a sauna and steam bath is that sauna uses dry heat while the steam bath makes use of moist heat. Saunas have low humidity and are thus set at a much higher temperature of 100 degrees as opposed to steam baths that don’t exceed 40 degrees.

The benefits of the therapies are:

They improve blood circulation by raising the body temperature and getting the heart to pump more blood to the peripheries (arms and legs).

They rejuvenate the skin through increased blood supply and sweating, which cleanses the body.

They stimulate the immune system.

They ease stress by encouraging relaxation.

They promote detoxification through increased lymph drainage.

They increase metabolism and ease aches and pains through raised body temperature and increased blood flow in the body.

Give your immunity a boost

In general, steam baths feel hotter because your sweat doesn’t evaporate. Hence, your body doesn’t get a chance to cool down. This also means you are less likely to dehydrate in a steam bath than a sauna. If you have respiratory problems like sinusitis, bronchitis and allergies, moist heat in the form of steam inhalation can be very effective. Try adding an aroma oil such as mint or eucalyptus.

Both saunas and steam baths put your body in a hyperthermic state. Raised body temperature, such as when you have fever, kickstarts the body’s natural healing processes. The immune system gets a boost. White blood cells and antibodies are produced faster, as is interferon, an anti-viral protein. This temperature is raised to effective levels in approximately 10 minutes.

Steam is the better option

Which is better for aiding recovery post exercise? It has been found that an ice bath is best for fastest recovery after an intense workout, but if you are to choose between a sauna or steam bath, steam would be the better option.

Unlike the sauna, it does not dehydrate the body, which could actually impair recovery. Due to the fact that sauna and steam both increase body temperature and blood flow, I would not recommend using them as a form of recovery for 24 hours after a hard training session. This is because a hard training session causes muscle fibre damage and microscopic swelling in and around the muscle fibres. If you then raise body temperature and blood flow, you may increase the swelling and delay recovery.

Ice is the best solution

The best form of recovery post exercise is an ice bath. This therapy works opposite to steam and sauna in that it decreases the body’s temperature. This stimulates the body to decrease blood flow to the arms and legs and divert most of the blood to the internal organs like your heart, lungs, intestines, etc. Decreased blood flow to the peripheries means lesser swelling. Therefore, the body takes lesser time to recover.

Use an ice bath for 10 to 15 minutes after training to stunt swelling and speed recovery.

Heath is a physiotherapist with the Mittal Champions Trust.