Get Your Sweat On & Reap The Benefits

Imagine this, something you can both enjoy and reap physical and mental benefits from!

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And that is, steam baths and/or saunas!

I stumbled upon a great article from Rhonda Perciavalle Patrick, Ph.D the other day, outlining the benefits of heat treatment for athletes.

I’ll focus in on the parts that relate to muscular performance, since that’s my area of interest. We know that intense exercise is an opportunity to improve endurance and muscle growth (hypertrophy), but it really is a catabolic activity resulting in oxidative stress by nature. If you don’t limit that stress post-workout, you won’t get the recovery and performance results you desire. But that’s where a relaxing sauna or steam bath post-workout comes in (heat acclimation as she refers to), helping mitigate the damage:

Heat acclimation reduces the amount of protein degradation occurring and as a result it increases net protein synthesis and, thus muscle hypertrophy. Hyperthermic conditioning is known to increase muscle hypertrophy by increasing net protein synthesis through three important mechanisms:

  • Induction of heat shock proteins.
  • Robust induction of growth hormone.
  • Improved insulin sensitivity.

Exercise induces both protein synthesis and degradation in skeletal muscles but, again, it is the net protein synthesis that causes the actual hypertrophy.

Oxidative stress is a major source of protein degradation, and weight training and/or intense endurance exercise brings that on. As Rhonda notes, heat acclimation induces the production of heat shock proteins, which ultimately help prevent protein degradation and turn on protein synthesis, which is the environment you want whether you’re an endurance athlete looking to recover optimally or a bodybuilder desiring muscle gains.

We also know HGH, or Human Growth Hormone, is a popular bodybuilding drug with a host of benefits from fat loss to muscle gain. You can get a natural pulse in HGH this way too, without resorting to injections. The verdict is still out on whether the results are comparable, but consider the two studies referenced below and try it for yourself.

In one, two 20-minute sauna sessions at 80°C (176°F) separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline. Whereas, two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone. Significant numbers to be sure, but enough to elicit the effects one gets with the drug? Debatable and near impossible to argue one way or the other until a study is conducted comparing the two!

And, lastly, athletes want to have optimal insulin sensitivity, and according to Rhonda a sauna/steam can also help with that. When your body no longer responds to insulin like it should, it’s an environment prone to unflattering weight gain (think diabetes) and a host of other health problems. Insulin is a good tool in the athlete’s toolbox, if their body responds to it!

Insulin regulates protein metabolism in skeletal muscle by the two following mechanisms:

  1. It increases protein synthesis by stimulating the uptake of amino acids (particularly BCAAs) into skeletal muscle.
  2. It decreases protein degradation through inhibition of the proteasome, which is a protein complex inside cells that is largely responsible for the degradation of most cellular proteins.

Life can get the best of you at times. At the very least, a sauna or steam is a good destresser  that may do a lot more good for you than you think! Not to mention sweating potential toxins out of your system… Get your sweat on and enjoy life.

Read Rhonda’s article in its entirety here

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Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.