stack of rolled white towels

Photo courtesy of @christinacorso/Twenty20

Recently, while waiting for my massage appointment, a masseuse encouraged me to first warm muscles to relax them, thus eliciting better results. With 20 minutes to spare, I entered the spa area and immediately encountered a fork in the road: to go right (to the sauna), or to go left (to the steam room). If they’re both designed to make you sweat, what’s the difference?

Since ancient Rome, the concept of sweating it out for good health has been a recurring social phenomenon that’s essentially evolved into two camps. The Turkish hammam, Russian banya, and Japanese onsen emphasizes the healing qualities of steam, or higher humidity. Meanwhile, the Native American sweat lodges, Finnish savusauna, and Korean hanjeungmak became synonymous with using stones or (later) electric stoves to warm a room into a dry heat. The goal, however, is singular: to destress your body, while opening your pores. 

It’s also a bad idea to treat sweat sessions, which are great for workout recovery (loosening joints, calming nerve endings), as substitutes for exercise. Sure, a University of East Finland study found that 30 minutes in a sauna can be equivalent to medium-intensity exercise,” since heat increases heart rates. But that mostly results in a loss of water weight, and you’re missing out on strength training—essential to weight loss and maintenance.

feet in sauna steam room

Photo courtesy of @sashapritchard/Twenty20

Now here is where saunas and steam rooms shine. A 2012 medical study found that humid heat can increase blood circulation that may help to deliver healing nutrients and waste removal to promote tissue healing…[and it has] been shown to elevate skin circulation.” Somewhat similarly, Harvard Medical School reports that regular sauna bathing may benefit people with risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.”

Suffice it to say, the differences between the two are nuanced. For instance, a sauna will reduce symptoms of a cold, because it improves drainage,” the New York Times reports, while [some] speculate that the high temperatures help weaken cold and flu viruses.” In contrast, steam rooms, by their very nature, could be less effective, unless they’re at high-enough temperatures.

The one you choose depends on your comfort zone. In my case, I found the humidity in the steam room a bit stifling. But when I left the sauna, I was absolutely refreshed. And it goes without saying that people with existing pulmonary or heart issues (especially low blood pressure) should consult their doctors. Be sure to drink plenty of water before and after a sweat session. If you ever feel uncomfortable, always heed the listen to your body adage” and simply leave.

Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.