Saunas and your health

Sweating is an impulse that extends far back in human history. About 3,000 years ago, the Mayans of Central America used sweat houses for religious ceremonies and good health. Nearly every culture has its own way of using heat for relaxation, therapy, and ritual; ancient Roman baths, modern Turkish steam baths, and trendy American hot tubs are but a few examples. One of the oldest — and hottest — of these techniques is the sauna. Saunas have been used for thousands of years in Finland, where nearly a third of all adults take them regularly. And saunas are increasingly popular in the United States, where over one million are in use.

Popularity is one thing, safety another. Are saunas good for your health, or can they be harmful?

Inside the box

The modern sauna is a simple unpainted room with wooden walls and benches. Heat is provided by a rock-filled electric heater — and it gets plenty hot. The recommended temperature rises from about 90°F at floor level to about 185°F at the top. Unlike Turkish baths, Finnish saunas are very dry, maintaining humidity levels of just 10%–20%. Water drains through the floor to keep things dry. In a good sauna, an efficient ventilation system exchanges the air three to eight times an hour.

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