How Regular Sauna Use Can Lengthen Your Life

03/19/2015 07:13 am ET | Updated May 19, 2015

Whenever I walk through the gym locker room, I'm always amazed by the guys older than me coming out of the sauna. It's not the younger guys I see but many in their 60s and 70s. Many of them go to the sauna after a swim.

Maybe they know something the rest of us don't.

A Finnish clinical cardiologist who's done a number of studies related to heart disease and fitness -- a reason why many of us over 50 go to the gym on a regular basis -- now says that we ought to be doing more than just hit the weights or do our cardio work when we're at the gym.

Dr. Jari A. Laukkanen at the University of Eastern Finland co-authored a study that says that hitting the sauna, in addition to our regular exercise routine, may help us live longer and not die so soon from a heart attack or a stroke. The study was published this week by JAMA Internal Medicine.

Laukkanen and his colleagues studied more than 2,300 men between 42 and 60 in eastern Finland for more than two decades and found that the more sessions per week men spent in the sauna. the lower their risk of sudden cardiac death and fatal coronary heart disease. The average age of participants was in their 50s. The sauna also extended the life of people with other illnesses.

According to the study, if a man had two or three sessions in the sauna a week, they had a 22 percent reduced chance of suffering sudden cardiac death. The percentage fell by nearly two thirds if they spent time in the sauna between four and seven days a week.

When it comes to fatal coronary heart disease, the risk fell by nearly 25 percent for two to three sessions a week and nearly 50 percent for four to seven sessions a week. For those whose death was attributed to cardio vascular disease, it was 27 percent lower for a couple of sessions a week and half lower if you were in the sauna at least four days a week.

You just can't walk in and spend a couple of minutes and walk out, however. The study says the more minutes spent in the sauna, the greater the benefits. It was in fact more than 50 percent less for those who spent at least 20 minutes in the sauna when it comes to sudden cardiac death. That also played out for other deaths.

The findings of the study aren't totally surprising. Researchers in the past have had good things to say about the sauna in lowering blood pressure and helping the function of our blood vessels.

What the latest study shows is that the health benefits for the cardiovascular system apparently result from the high temperature and low humidity.

The average temperature in the sauna was 174 degrees. I guess spending the summer in Miami isn't enough.

The study goes back to 1984 and included men filling out questionnaires and then researchers following up on their deaths. Some 1,500 people said they used the sauna at least two times a week and 600 said they used it at least four times a week. Other than the sauna, statins also extend life as well.

The researchers say more studying needs to be done to better understand why people are living longer by spending time in the sauna. In Finland, they tend to be part of many people's homes and feature dry heat.

Rita Redberg, a San Francisco cardiologist and editor of the medical journal, says she hadn't expected to see such a large benefit for sauna bathing but she's happy to see it. She says it's likely to apply to hot tubs and steam rooms as well.

"It could be it works because it improves circulation but you can get those kind of effects from hot tubs and steam rooms too," Redberg says.

Redberg says for those who think they would enjoy the sauna, they should give it a try. The one caveat about the study is that it's an observational one and so, therefore, the findings aren't definitive, Redberg says.

"That's certainly what the authors thought was leading to the improved health but it could be the fact that people may often go the sauna after going to the gym," Redberg says. "We know going to the gym is good for your health. Or maybe it's something about sitting in the sauna that it's good for circulation or maybe it's because you're relaxing in the sauna, which is a good thing or maybe it's social time for some people. I think it can't hurt and it might help."

Redberg says even though the study looked at men only, it should apply equally to both sexes. There's no physiological reason why it wouldn't, she says.

So feel free to hit the sauna the next time you're at the gym.

"At least you will feel good after a sauna and maybe you will extend your life too," Redberg says.

And make sure you take some bottled water with you to prevent dehydration. And no alcohol beforehand. It's all part of a strategy to extend your life as this author points out

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Earlier on Huff/Post50:

11 Easy Ways To Shorten Your Life