Over the years, in an effort to “detox” after weekends of heavy pizza and beer consumption, I’ve subjected myself to a number of uncomfortably sweaty situations. Bikram yoga; runs in 95-degree weather; scalding-hot baths; the list goes on and on. Now, a new technology is promising to blast calories, alleviate aches and pains, wring out “toxins,” reverse aging, and lower blood pressure. And the best part? To reap all these benefits, you even don’t have to move a muscle. It’s called infrared sauna technology, and it’s one of the coolest new ways to get your sweat on.
I try to stay in-the-know when it comes to health and fitness happenings in my local Nashville, so when I started hearing glowing reviews about a newly opened sauna studio in town (fittingly called The Sweat House), I knew I had to scope it out. Here’s the catch, though: The Sweat House isn’t just any sauna studio. It’s an infrared sauna studio, a type of special sauna that heats the surface of the skin directly via infrared light. Intrigued, and wanting to see what all of the hype was all about, I promptly booked an appointment with the studio’s owner, Kayla.
Before arriving for my appointment, I did a little homework to see what I was getting myself into. Infrared light, I learned, is the invisible part of the sun’s spectrum. So, similar to a tanning bed, infrared saunas heat the body directly using light. No need to grab the SPF, though—unlike ultraviolet light, which can cause skin damage and premature aging, infrared light isn’t at all harmful to your skin.
I had visited a traditional sauna a few years back, and all I could remember about the experience was sitting in a stiflingly hot wooden room to the point where I felt lightheaded. But infrared saunas differ from “normal” saunas. Whereas traditional saunas heat the air directly, making it difficult to breathe in some cases, infrared sauna therapy heats the body directly, in turn raising the body’s core temperature and producing a deep sweat at the cellular level.
The biggest selling point of The Sweat House is the alleged health benefits of infrared technology. Infrared saunas are purported to relieve muscle pain, purge the body of harmful toxins, improve arthritis symptoms, lower blood pressure, purify the skin, and reduce cellulite. The website also states that clients can expect to burn upwards of 600+ calories in a single session. It almost sounded too good to be true. Would my first infrared sauna experience live up to its lofty promises? I was curious to find out.
I arrived to my appointment wearing a swimsuit (per the website’s instructions) and a cover-up. Inside, the lobby felt like distinctly spa-like: minimalist white walls with soft Indie music streaming in the background. I checked in at the front desk, and the affable owner, Kayla, had me sign a waiver form. Afterward, she led me down a hallway and ushered me into a small room on the right. Much to my surprise, the sauna resembled more of a tanning bed than a traditional sauna. Kayla gave me a quick run-down of the protocol and what to expect during the session. Before leaving, she told me that she would come in halfway through my session and adjust the heat level if necessary.
After Kayla left, I stripped down to my bathing suit and climbed on top of the sauna table. A little uncertainly, I eased my way into the pod, pulling the top section of it up to my chin as Kayla had told me to, so that my head was exposed but the rest of me was plunged into the tunnel-like depths of the sauna. Lulling, spa-like music played softly in the background. I closed my eyes, willing myself to relax in spite of the vaguely panicked, claustrophobic feeling that was beginning to creep in. But the sense of unease dissipated, and I soon surrendered to the soft pillow beneath my head and zoned out.
Within a few seconds, my legs began to feel strangely prickly. Somewhat alarmed—was my skin burning??—I reached down and touched my shin. No; it was simply beads of sweat, beginning to gather, droplet-like, all over the surface of my legs. Not long after that, my whole torso was sweaty. Soon, I was one big, sweaty mess.
The thirty minutes passed quickly; I lay in a peaceful, savasana-like state of half-sleep for the entire duration of the session. I was almost asleep when the soft beeping noise sounded, indicating that my session was up. When I emerged from the warm cocoon of the sauna, my body was entirely coated in a layer of sweat, but I didn’t feel “gross” like I might have after a spin class. I felt, well, refreshed. Cleansed. My leg muscles, in particular, felt noticeably limber and light, as though all of the knots and tight spots had been loosened up.
After changing back into my clothes, I promptly chugged a glass of lemon-infused water in the lobby and paid for the appointment at the front desk—a steep $30—then headed home for a welcome cold shower.
Did my sauna session burn 600+ calories, zap cellulite, and purge my body of toxins? Well, it’s hard to tell. I would probably need to go back on a regular basis in order to fully reap the benefits and get visible results. Several studies have examined the use of infrared saunas in the treatment of chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure and other heart problems, and found some evidence of benefit. However, larger and more-rigorous studies are needed to confirm these results. What’s more, the experience wasn’t cheap; $30 is a fairly hefty price tag by anyone’s standards.
However, did I feel better after the session? The answer is a resounding “yes.” The day following my appointment, my perpetually stiff lower body felt much lighter, alleviated of the usual aches and pains. Also, the experience was undoubtedly relaxing—when else do you lie comatose for thirty minutes, surrounded by a soothing cocoon of warmth? It’s like being at the beach, sans the harmful UV rays.
For those who aren’t crazy about massages but still want to soothe sore muscles and relieve stress, infrared saunas are a great alternative. An infrared sauna session can loosen and lubricate the joints without the potential awkwardness of a hands-on massage. Additionally, for those who want to get a good sweat but can’t tolerate the high temps of conventional saunas, infrared saunas might be the answer. Infrared saunas don’t get nearly as hot as conventional saunas, and since your head is exposed the whole time, you won’t get that dizzy, breathless feeling you might get in a normal sauna.
So the next time you want to give your body some rejuvenation and TLC, you might consider giving infrared saunas a go. You’ll undoubtedly feel less worse-for-the-wear after you leave, and who knows—you might even burn some calories while you’re at it!