Do saunas actually burn calories?

Saunas have long been touted as an effective way to burn calories and lose weight. The high temperatures make you sweat, and it’s thought that this perspiration burns significant calories. But is using a sauna actually an effective way to burn calories?

How saunas work

Saunas heat the body to high temperatures, usually between 150-212°F. This causes increased heart rate and blood circulation as the body attempts to cool itself via perspiration. The sweating process requires energy expenditure which proponents argue burns calories.

There are a few different types of saunas:

  • Traditional Finnish saunas use dry heat, with low humidity levels around 10-20%.
  • Steam saunas, common in North America, heat to similar temperatures but have nearly 100% humidity.
  • Infrared saunas use light to create heat, resulting in lower ambient temperatures (usually 120-140°F) but increased body core temperatures.

All types cause perspiration and aim to provide health benefits including muscle relaxation, improved circulation, and yes – calorie burn.

Calories burned in sauna

Multiple small studies have attempted to quantify the number of calories burnt in a sauna session. Results have varied widely based on sauna type, temperature, humidity, and duration.

In a 2015 study, volunteers spent 30 minutes in a 170°F infrared sauna. In women, an average of 140 calories were burnt during the session. Men burned roughly 180 calories.1

Another study looked at a traditional 194°F Finnish sauna. Over a 30 minute session, women burned 130 calories and men burned 250 calories.2

A 1989 study compared calorie burn between people using a sauna vs. running on a treadmill. It found that men burned 7 calories/minute in the sauna versus 10 calories/minute while running. Women burned 5 calories/minute in the sauna compared to 8.5 while running.3

Based on the limited research, it appears that sauna sessions do burn moderate calories – similar to low-intensity exercise. Traditional saunas may burn slightly more calories compared to infrared.

Sauna benefits beyond calorie burn

While saunas can burn some calories, regular use may provide other health benefits unrelated to weight loss:

  • Improved cardiovascular health: Saunas place stress on the heart and circulation system as they work to heat the body. Some research shows saunas may lower blood pressure and improve heart function.4
  • Lower cholesterol: Some studies link regular sauna use with decreased LDL “bad” cholesterol and increased HDL “good” cholesterol.5
  • Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia: Hyperthermic conditioning from saunas may protect brain cells and lower risk of cognitive decline.6
  • Temporary relief of arthritis pain: The heat increases circulation which may alleviate pain and stiffness in joints.7
  • Improved mood: Releasing heat shock proteins and endorphins may improve mental outlook.8
  • Healthier skin: Increased sweat production and blood flow provides nourishment to the skin.9
  • Detoxification: Sweating helps flush toxins and waste from the body.10

For these benefits, regular sauna use of at least 15-20 minutes, 3-4 times per week is typically recommended. One-time or sporadic use likely won’t provide the same effects.

Is sauna an effective weight loss method?

While saunas do burn some calories, the amount is relatively small in the context of total daily expenditure. The table below compares calories burned during different 30 minute activities for a 160 lb (73kg) person:

Activity Calories burned (for 160lb person)
Sauna 150-250 calories
Walking (3mph) 140 calories
Jogging (5mph) 295 calories
Swimming (leisurely) 220 calories

While helpful, the 150-250 calories burned in a sauna session doesn’t amount to that much compared to other forms of exercise. To lose 1 pound of fat, you need to burn ~3,500 calories more than consumed.11 So shedding 1 pound would require 14-23 sauna sessions.

Some key considerations on sauna for weight loss:

  • Time spent in the sauna partially replaces other activity. So the net calorie burn is less than the sauna session alone.
  • The heat and sweating triggers increased hunger and thirst. So people often eat more calories afterwards.
  • The weight loss from sweating is water weight only, not fat loss.
  • Effects are temporary. One study found volunteers gained back all lost weight within 24 hours of sauna use.12

Considering these factors, saunas are likely not an efficient weight loss method on their own. They don’t burn enough calories relative to time spent.

Should you use saunas for weight loss?

Saunas can absolutely be part of an healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and proper nutrition. However, their benefits for weight loss are minimal at best.

A typical sauna session only burns 150-250 calories. Even with regular use, this number is too low to impact fat loss for most people.

That said, saunas provide other health benefits like improved circulation, muscle relaxation, and mental clarity. So they can be a helpful addition to an overall weight management program – but not a key component.

For meaningful weight loss, focus instead on traditional tried-and-true methods like reducing calorie intake, increasing daily activity, and eating a balanced diet.

The bottom line

Saunas do burn some calories, similar to low-to-moderate intensity exercise. But the relatively small amount is negligible for most people attempting weight loss.

Use saunas primarily for benefits like muscle relaxation and improved mood. To actually lose weight, stick with reducing calorie intake, exercising regularly, and following a healthy eating plan.

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