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How to get the most out of your sauna

Published by Sarah Horrocks
Published on 16 April 2008

The tradition of sauna was born in Scandinavia 2000 years ago, and has little by little invaded our spas, gyms and beauty therapy centres, as well as (for the lucky ones) in homes. A sauna is a bath of dry steam with numerous benefits - as long as you do it the right way!

The tradition of sauna was born in Scandinavia 2000 years ago, and has little by little invaded our spas, gyms and beauty therapy centres, as well as (for the lucky ones) in homes. A sauna is a bath of dry steam with numerous benefits - as long as you do it the right way!

The basics

A sauna is a little wooden cabin or a room in which you take a bath in dry steam. In this closed space, a wood-burning or electric stove heats sauna stones in a receptacle. Once the heat is built up in the stones (they are special ones as they don’t break down under extreme heat), water is poured over them to create steam. Unlike a Turkish bath or hammam, a sauna is dry, with between 3-20% humidity. This is why the temperature is much higher: 80 to 90°C on average.

The rules

Nudity is the norm, as all clothes and swimming costumes generate the evaporation of sweat and pose hygiene issues. However, a towel must be placed between the bench and skin to protect from the heat and absorb sweat. According to the rules of the art, a sauna session should last between an hour and a half and 2 hours (gulp!) in 2 or 3 phases. You must start with a shower, washing with soap from head to foot to eliminate germs and bacteria, warm up the body (especially the extremities) to prevent thermic shock when you enter the sauna, and clean the skin to aid perspiration.

Once you're clean, go into the sauna for the first phase. Sit on your towel with your limbs preferably all at the same level, and concentrate on relaxing. Your breathing will become deep, your heartbeat and blood circulation will accelerate and your blood vessels will dilate. You should think about leaving the sauna when sweat starts dripping down your body. This first phase should not exceed 15 minutes. You need to shower again with tepid or cold water, dry yourself, then give yourself a few minutes to lie down.

You might then want to return for the same period of time. When you leave, shower, dry and rest and relax as before. If you feel able to go in again, have a third session. You must stop as soon as you feel tired. After this last session, rest for at least 20 minutes. Given the strong heat in a sauna, loss of water by perspiration can exceed 1 litre per hour and body temperature can reach 40°C. To compensate for dehydration, it's essential to drink plenty of water between sessions.

Not recommended for some

Saunas make your blood vessels dilate, so are not recommended under any circumstances for people who suffer from high blood pressure, heart problems or cardiovascular disease. If you have kidney problems or epilepsy, ask your doctor if you can go in the sauna. Saunas are a no-no for pregnant women, and for anyone under the influences of drugs, alcohol or medication. During a session at the sauna, it is essential to listen to your body and leave if you feel the least bit concerned, respect the rules of usage and don’t skip any steps.

The benefits

Due to the intense heat, saunas relax you and eliminate physical and mental tension. They're excellent at relieving stress and nervous fatigue. By accelerating the sweating process, the sauna helps eliminate toxins from the body, relaxes the muscles and purifies the skin. However, it’s not designed to help you lose weight; the pounds that sometimes come off during a session are water, not fat!

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