The heat of the Olympics is officially over, but prevailing excessively high temperatures will not only continue, but loads of people will also be seeking the heat. As science journalist Sarah Everts was quoted explaining last week, some folks will continue to be drawn to the small confines of a sizzling sauna where they “can relax and forget the outside world.” It is where just sitting still can give their heart a workout and provide a rise of endorphins and other “happy hormones,” simulating the feeling one gets after vigorous exercise. As Everts points out: “A long-term Finnish study found going to the sauna four times a week reduced a person’s risk of sudden cardiac death, fatal coronary heart disease, fatal cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.” So, saunas are good, but only with the following qualification — if you practice what Harvard Health calls “sauna safety.”
It is advised that people with uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease should check with their doctors before using a sauna. People should avoid alcohol and medications that may impair sweating, which could result in overheating, before and after your sauna. As a rule of thumb, your stay in a sauna should be no more than 15 to 20 minutes. You should cool down gradually afterward, drink two to four glasses of cool water, and if you feel unwell during your sauna, head for the door.
It’s also worth noting that just taking a warm bath not only helps “soothe aching joints, wash away stress, and promote sleep,” according to the Mayo Clinic, it is associated with better heart health. In an observational study published in March 2020 in the journal Heart, researchers compared people who didn’t take a tub bath more than twice a week with people who took a daily warm or hot bath. They found that those in the daily tub bath category “had a 28% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 26% lower risk of stroke.”
Like the sauna experience, the study showed the effects of tub bathing on the body to be similar to those of exercise. The study did not prove conclusively that daily tub bathing staves off heart problems. And before you step into a steamy tub, Harvard Health offers a note of caution, “taking baths in very hot water is also tied to sudden death due to overheating, confusion, or drowning.”
Putting the tub and sauna behind us and heading back outside and into the sunshine, know that August is designated as “Summer Sun Safety Month.” Who knew? According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. The Mayo Clinic, along with so many other public health experts, is asking us to be constantly mindful of “the signs of sun damage and (to) remember the ways you can protect yourself and your family from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation from sunlight.”
Exercising and enjoying time outdoors are important for good health. Staying protected from the sun allows us to do so safely. The Mayo Clinic offers four ways you can protect yourself that, by now, should be very familiar. Avoid sun exposure in the middle of the day (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) when the UV rays are strongest. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 30, even on cloudy days and reapply every two hours. Wear sunglasses that block both types of UV radiation and protect against damage to the retina, lens and cornea. Protect your skin with proper clothing that covers your arms and legs and wear a broad-brimmed hat. These are well-known sun-protective habits.
According to a NYC Daily Post report, a new study suggests that public information campaigns are creating a greater understanding and respect for the sun’s effects on skin. Dr. Sangeeta Marwaha, a dermatologist in Sacramento and co-author of the study, says: “There’s been an increase in sun-protective habits and a resulting decrease in the development of skin cancer. Parents today are more likely to protect their children from undue sun exposure, and the use of sunscreen is now more mainstream.”
As the website familydoctor.org importantly reminds us, there are important benefits to sun exposure. It creates vitamin D, which absorbs calcium, and the body needs calcium to build and maintain healthy bones. A report from verywellmind.com says, “from bone and immune health to depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sunlight offers powerful restorative, protective, and healing effects.”
It is also true that time spent in the sun makes your skin age faster than normal, effects that begin early in life on sun-exposed skin. As reported by the NYC Daily Post, “Zachary W. Lipsky, a biomedical engineer at Binghamton University, found that UV radiation weakens the bonds that help the cells in the top layer of skin stick together, damaging the skin’s structural integrity and leaving it more vulnerable to infection.” UV light also damages the elastin fibers in skin, causing it to stretch, sag and wrinkle.
No one is exempt from the risk of the effects of sun exposure. So, it is important to know your body and how it reacts to sun and follow proven protective guidelines.