For many gymgoers, a post-exercise sauna session is the reward for a workout well done. And a new study provides even more evidence that saunas are good for you.
A paper published in the journal Neurology found that regular sauna baths were associated with a significant reduction in a person’s risk of having a stroke. “The findings are very strong,” said study co-author Setor Kunutsor, a research fellow at the University of Bristol in the UK, in an email to TIME. “Those who took a sauna four to seven times a week were about 60% less likely to have a stroke than people who took only one sauna per week.”
The study looked at people living in Finland, where saunas are so common that many people have them in their homes. For about 15 years, researchers tracked 1,628 adults and asked them to fill out surveys about their sauna usage and other lifestyle habits. The participants also had a number of health tests performed at the start of the study.
During the follow-up period, 155 people had strokes. The researchers used that data to calculate the rate of stroke per 1,000 people for three different groups: Those who used a sauna once per week, two to three times per week or four to seven times per week. They saw a marked disparity between the most frequent sauna bathers, who had 2.8 strokes per 1,000 people, and the least frequent, who had 8.1 strokes per 1,000 people.
While overall stroke risk was still relatively low throughout the entire study group, that difference translates to a 60% lower chance for the heaviest sauna users. The results held true even after accounting for other health and lifestyle factors that could influence stroke risk, such as high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes, according to the study.
Due to the popularity of saunas in Finland, most people in the study used one at least weekly, the authors note, so more research is needed to compare the outcomes of frequent users versus those who never use a sauna. These findings are also specific to the Finnish people included in the study, and don’t necessarily apply to everyone. Still, Kunutsor says he doesn’t see “any reason why similar findings will not be observed in other populations.”
The results are likely related to drops in blood pressure associated with sauna use, since hypertension is a known risk factor for stroke, Kunutsor says. The heat in saunas increases blood flow to the skin, which results in an overall drop in blood pressure, he says. Saunas may also stimulate the immune system, improve vascular health and reduce inflammation, stress and circulating blood cholesterol, Kunutsor adds.
The study isn’t the first to discover that the hot habit comes with health benefits. Other recent research has linked using a sauna with a healthier heart and longer life, and another study found that a 30-minute sauna session was enough to lower blood pressure.
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