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Sweat it Out: How Many Calories Do You Really Burn in a Sauna?

by Max
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Sweat it Out - How Many Calories Do You Really Burn in a Sauna

Saunas are a near-inexhaustible well-spring of health benefits and other well-being boosts. There are several great reasons to take regular saunas but is calorie-burning one of them? Saunas have been tied to calorie loss many times in recent history, most notably with the sauna suit popularized in Europe and North America during the 1980s and 90s. While everyone is likely aware that using the sauna increases the rate at which calories are burned, the question is: How many calories do you burn in the sauna? And the even bigger question is whether or not that calorie loss is significant enough to matter. Throughout this article, we are going to explore both the how and why of sauna calorie loss as well as the best way to use the sauna to burn calories in a healthy way. Even if you have above-average sauna know-how, you may be surprised as to just how much the sauna can do for your body and well-being.

How Many Calories Do You Burn in the Sauna?

To begin, let’s consider that you get into a sauna with no previous workout. Essentially, you’ve gone from doing absolutely nothing and stepped into a sauna. This means that you can generally take your normal level of calorie burning and assume the sauna is burning them at a rate of at least 20% more or as much as 40% more. I’ll pose an example: Let’s say that just by being you and sitting in a chair you burn 40 calories in 20 minutes. If you spent 20 minutes in the sauna, it’s possible that you could burn as much as 48 calories whereas you would have burned 40 by not being in the sauna. Not a massive gain, I suppose. But how surprising could that really be? By just going into a hot sauna, you aren’t really exerting your body that seriously; it certainly isn’t even close to the level of aerobic exercise.

Calorie burning, also, is not a perfect metric for weight loss. There are more than a few reasons why monitoring simply the number of calories a person burns doesn’t paint a full picture of health or weight loss. Weight loss can only come about when there is a sustained difference between the number of calories that the body needs to run normally versus the number of calories that the body takes in every day. The average person burns anywhere from 1,500 calories to 2,200 calories a day simply by existing. Those who incorporate regular exercise can easily add up to 600 more. We gain weight when we take in more calories than we use for a sustained amount of time and the opposite is true for weight loss.

Why exactly does the body burn more calories in the sauna? Even by our example where a sedentary person goes from nothing to a sauna soak, they burn more. They have simply gone from sitting in one place to sitting in another. The reason has to do with the way that our body handles the heat of the sauna.

Why Do We Burn Calories in the Sauna?

When your body steps into a sauna, it immediately begins to work harder, which results in calories being burned. You certainly won’t feel exhausted like you would during a hard workout, but the body has to turn itself up a bit when put in an environment of higher heat. Our body works best at 37 degrees Celsius and there’s no way around that. When it’s much colder or hotter than 37 degrees outside our body, it’s up to our internal systems to keep themselves as close to that key temperature as possible. Traditional wood-burning saunas can get up to 95 degrees Celsius, so you better believe your body has to work considerably hard in order to keep your internal temperature as close to 37 degrees as possible.

The first thing you’ll likely notice happening to your body in a sauna is sweat. But the sweat your body gives off in the sauna is nowhere near the first step in keeping your temperature under control. As soon as your skin comes into contact with hotter-than-normal temperatures like those in the sauna, your nervous system sends a signal to the brain saying in brain-speak “It’s too hot! Start cooling us down!”. It’s then the brain’s job to send follow-up signals all throughout the body with the ultimate goal of cooling down.

Your body keeps a relatively small reserve of water near the surface of your skin for the specific purpose of cooling you down when you get too hot. So, as soon as the brain knows you’re getting too hot, blood starts to flow faster and with more pressure in the regions with sweat glands. The higher blood pressure makes the sweat squeeze through your pores and out onto your skin. As an outsider, sweat may look instantaneous but there is quite a bit of internal back and forth that has to happen before sweat starts flowing. This is the major reason why our rate of caloric burning kicks up while in the sauna even without working out ahead of time.

Is It Possible to Lose Weight in the Sauna?

While, yes, you do indeed burn calories while using the sauna, this caloric rate of burning is certainly not enough to lead to major weight loss. Think about the numbers explained above. Spending about 20 minutes in the sauna only leads to 8 additional calories burned compared to if you were just lounging on the couch. That means the only way to lose weight is if you live in a sauna; don’t try this, of course. But then what about this: it’s more than possible for a person to weigh themselves before and after using the sauna and see the number of kilograms on the scale change in their favor. Don’t be fooled: even if the number of your overall weight changes after a visit to the sauna, this is surely water weight which doesn’t contribute to the type of weight that you probably want to lose.

Your body holds a lot of water. There could be anywhere from 60-80 liters of water in you right now. So as your body takes in and loses water, it is more than possible for your total weight, according to your scale, to change. Sweating is functionally letting off the water with the ultimate goal of cooling down the body. So after 20 minutes or less in a hot sauna, you’re certain to give off a substantial amount of water. But the lost weight from that water will come right back as soon as you take a drink of water.

The only way to meaningfully lose weight is through sustained regular exercise and a healthy diet. Over a long period of time, the body gives off the excess fat (the weight you actually want to lose) when your daily activity and caloric intake are in positive deficit meaning that you burn more than you take in. The sweet spot is a deficit of anywhere from 100 to 200 calories; overshooting can be extremely dangerous.

So here’s a new question: since exercise is a proven way to lose weight, does working out and then taking a sauna lead to higher calorie burn?

How Many Calories Do You Burn Pairing a Workout and Sauna?

It is a growing trend in North America and Europe to pair a good workout with a visit to the sauna. There are several reasons why saunas are a great follow-up to a workout and one of them is actually partially related to the burning of calories.

Using the sauna soon after a hard workout that gets your heart rate up has actually been found to have the effect of slightly extending the value of that workout. Especially knowing what we do above about the calorie rate change from being sedentary to going into a sauna, this may be hard to believe. But going from a high-burning activity like running or any kind of aerobic exercise into the sauna extends the amount of time that it takes for the body to return to its normal rate of calorie burning. This extension may not be massive but it actually is large enough to positively increase the value of your workout in most cases. Let’s consider an example: Let’s say you just ran 5 kilometers over 25 minutes and burned about 400 calories. This is a rate of 16 calories per minute which is great for weight loss and healthy upkeep of the body. If you were to go directly from working out back to living your daily life, that rate would drop down rapidly. But if you instead went to the sauna directly after that workout (with a shower in between, of course), the rate of caloric burn would actually take a bit longer to go back to your sedentary average. So instead of going from 16 calories a minute directly down to three or four, you would likely see 16 drops to 12 and then 8 and then finally three or four if you took a 20-minute trip to the sauna after your workout.

Can I Burn More Calories in an Infrared Sauna

The examples from above all assume that you are using a traditional wood-burning sauna to track your calorie loss. So, then, it’s natural to ask if by using an infrared sauna you have the chance of burning more calories. In this case, however, infrared saunas have the same caloric burn value as old-school wood-burning saunas. Even though the method of heating the body between the two sauna styles is completely different, the effect on the body is actually quite similar. Both infrared saunas and wood-burning saunas use dry heat. While the dry heat of a wood-burning sauna is a direct result of burning wood, the heat from infrared saunas instead comes from the radiation of the high-energy bulbs that make up the sauna. But to the body, dry heat is dry heat. You’ll sweat at the same rate and by that same metric, you’ll see the same number of calories burned in each sauna. Luckily, this also means that you can extend the value of your workout by using an infrared sauna just as well as a traditional wood-burning sauna.

Can I Burn More Calories in a Steam Room?

Steam rooms, unlike wood-burning or infrared saunas, are fueled by a wet heat boiler. And while the style of heating is entirely different in a steam room, there is no major caloric gain to be made in a steam room. Think about the reason that saunas boost your caloric burn rate: your body has to work extra hard with the key goal of keeping your internal systems at a good temperature. The same thing happens in a steam room. The key difference, however, is that in steam rooms the rate of humidity will certainly be much higher. This can actually lead to increased sweating in some people, and thus, a higher rate of caloric burning.

But when it comes to the major calorie burning that a sauna can cause, that being calorie burn tied to an existing workout, steam rooms offer the same major benefit as dry heat saunas; that being a slower rate of return back to the sedentary rate of calorie loss.

How to Get the Most Caloric Value Out of the Sauna

Being that saunas do, in fact, have an influence on your overall rate of calorie burn, it’s natural to seek out a method that helps you burn those calories efficiently. And the good news is that there is a proven way to do just that. Let’s get into it here.

First, in order to get the highest caloric value out of your sauna visit, you need to have already been burning a lot of calories. The main value of the sauna is slowing down your rate of return to normal burning rate. This means that having the highest rate of caloric burn before you get into the sauna means that your body will burn more calories over more time in the sauna. Let’s get specific about this: If you go for a brisk walk and get your rate of calories burned up to ten calories a minute, this means that your subsequent visit to the sauna will only slow that drop from ten down to the five or six calories per minute that are normal in the sauna. your body will reach that rate of five or six calories quite quickly. But if you instead went for a serious, taxing run that brought your caloric burn rate up to 20 calories a minute, this means your body has a lot more ground to cover between that rate and the average rate that your body deals with in the sauna. Your body eases from 20 to five or six in a longer amount of time compared to dropping from ten to five or six.

Any time that you try to pair working out with sauna use, however, it is essential that you make sure you have had enough water. Working out already makes your body give off water and the sauna will do the exact same thing. It is already easy enough for a person to become dehydrated simply by using the sauna for an extended period of time, so it is more than easy to believe that a person could become dehydrated after both a workout and a visit to the sauna. Consider both drinking some water before your workout, after your workout, and then again after you use the sauna. There is no problem, also, with taking a break in the middle of your sauna session for water. No calorie loss is more important than your immediate health.

Conclusions on Calorie Loss in the Sauna

The sauna can indeed help you burn more calories but that burn rate can only really lead to major weight loss when paired with serious exercise that gets the body sweaty already. The calories burned in a sauna alone are just not sufficient to matter – If you were to use the sauna with no paired workout, the biggest weight you’d likely lose is in the water your body gives off. That water weight, unfortunately, isn’t the type of weight loss that sticks; you’ll gain it right back when you rehydrate. But for those who already have their bodies working hard after a workout, using the sauna is a proven way to prolong your calorie loss and even increase the total value of your workout! As long as you stay properly hydrated and your workout doesn’t strain your body, adding a visit to the sauna after your workout may be a great way to both hold-off soreness and, of course, increase the number of calories burned in the sauna.

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