One of the most common things in modern gyms and spas is the steam room, directly followed by the sauna. Steam rooms are those tile-covered moist rooms which achieve their therapeutic effect by surrounding you with hot humid air. They often reach temperatures above 105-110 degrees Fahrenheit and air humidity of over 85%. Many people use them primarily for their effect on the airways and skin. Still, in this article, I will go through some of the major steam room benefits and risks and show you why they can be great for you and also when you should avoid them.
If you’re wondering what are some of the main differences between a steam room and a sauna, head over to my dedicated article on the topic to find out!
Steam Room Benefits
There are a lot of benefits that you can get out of a well-timed steam room session. It is important to remember that, as with everything else, you shouldn’t overdo this and spend far too much time there, as it might create the opposite effect of the one you are after. Some of the steam room benefits worth pointing out are:
- Skin health
- Muscle recovery
- Joint health
- Calorie burning
- Stress relief
If you want to get a steam room in the comfort of your home, check out my guide on some of the best steam shower generators! Now, let’s go through each and every one of those now and see what exactly happens to your body and its different parts when you enter this hot steamy room…
Steam inhalation (or steam therapy) has been one of the main resources for people to counter the symptoms of colds, sinus infections, and allergic reactions related to the respiratory system. In short, inhaling warm moist air relaxes and loosens up the mucose layer of your nasal passages, as well as the trachea and lungs.
This treatment also opens up your sinuses which often get clogged up and bring a variety of symptoms such as nasal congestion, pain, or even inflammation. There are a variety of portable machines that produce steam and deliver it through a face mask but the steam room takes this to a whole new level, engulfing your whole body in it. Not only can you breathe the warm humid air without the need of a mask but you will also reap the rest of the health benefits that steam applies to your body.
The next big part of your body that is largely affected by the steam room is none other than the skin itself…
The outer layer of the skin is full of pores that are mainly used to secrete sweat. When you are in a hot environment, these pores open up to increase the sweat release and ultimately cool down your body. Saunas and steam rooms both have similar effects when it comes to this but they have a few key differences.
For once, saunas are far drier and allow sweat to evaporate quicker, leaving room for intensive sweating. Saunas, on the other hand, have their air almost entirely saturated with water, which prevents an excessive amount of sweat to leave your skin and get into the air. That will prevent dehydration but will also heat you up far quicker. The condensation will rinse most of the dirt and dead skin away from your skin’s outer layer. That will, in turn, help your skin tackle issues related to acne better.
The hot steam inside the room will also penetrate further than the dry heat of the sauna and will easily remove toxins that have built up beneath the top layer of your skin.
Heat, in general, helps the small capillaries in your body dilate. These blood vessels can, therefore, transport more oxygen-rich blood to every part of your body and help with tissue metabolism. Moist heat has shown to further amplify this effect and is especially healthy to older people who benefit the most out of this circulatory boost. Short sessions in the steam room can help your body recover better and also improve your heart and blood vessels’ performance in the long run.
As these small vessels open up, there is another thing that happens. The blood pressure in your circulatory system drops. That removes a certain amount of strain from your heart and helps your body manage the blood pressure better in the future. Weekly visits to the sauna room have been shown to improve the way people with high blood pressure handle their condition and has also shown promising effects on their therapy.
However, it is important to note here that this effect can act as a double-edged sword for people with cardiovascular issues, so it is always important to consult your doctor before using a steam room if you are uncertain. We will discuss that in more detail further down the article in the “Risks” section. Now, let’s see how steam can help your muscles recover.
Even though ice has been shown to have better long-term effects for delayed onset muscle soreness, heat is a far better solution for milder aches and its effect is far quicker. Still, once again, the advantages of heat for your muscles are more temporary than the ones cold temperatures have.
A few things are important for your muscles and body after a workout – normalized heart rate and muscle relaxation are the two most important factors. Saunas and steam rooms tend to increase your heart rate which acts as a form of a passive exercise that delays the initiation of your muscle recovery. However, the heat will greatly relax your muscles, and as I already pointed out, will dilate the small blood vessels that deliver oxygenated blood to the muscle tissues and that transport all the toxins and metabolic products away. So, in short, steam rooms will provide a great amount of pain alleviation and will also relax your whole body and muscles after a mild workout. If you’ve been through a harsh training session, though, a cold shower has proven to have much better long-term effects and will reduce the muscle soreness in the upcoming days.
I’ve written about the topic of heat and muscle recovery in my in-depth article on the topic, where I’ve taken saunas as an example, as more and more people head for the dry hot room immediately after their workout.
If you are dealing with joint issues or have recently suffered a joint trauma, you know how crucial it is for your joints to be relaxed and loosened up if you are going to exercise. This is the reason why some people prefer hitting the steam room (or even the sauna) before starting their workout. The heat will alleviate most of the pain and will also relax the ligaments and joint tissues around your body.
So the hot steamy air basically has the same effect as a mild warm-up, but have in mind that you will need to tread lightly after you go out of the steam room, as your body will still need some basic warming up if you plan on lifting weights or putting a lot of pressure on your muscles.
Steam rooms are also used to relieve joint pain for people suffering from chronic joint issues such as arthritis. Saunas are also good at that, especially some of the good infrared saunas out there that can penetrate a few centimetres under your skin, which is just enough to apply the effect of infrared rays directly to your joint tissues.
While steam rooms and saunas haven’t been proven to help with weight loss (apart from losing water weight), the increased heart rate combined with some mild exercises or even hot yoga can create some good caloric spendings by your body.
The increased circulation, heart rate, and metabolism will surely help your workout program and if you combine that with a healthy diet, it will certainly work in your favour.
Still, any water you lose from the steam room, you must replenish immediately after you go out, otherwise, you can easily overheat your body and/or make it work in water-deficit conditions.
We already know how diverse the effects of heat can be upon our bodies but there still is one effect that we haven’t discussed. Heat indirectly increases the number of feel-good hormones your body releases (endorphins). Among the plethora of effects these hormones have, they also are one of the best stress-reducers we have.
Another amazing feature of steam rooms is that they decrease the hormone which has the opposite effect of the endorphins – cortisol. Known as one of the major stress-related hormones, cortisol is mainly released in our bodies when we are under conditions of acute or chronic stress. When cortisol levels drop and endorphin levels increase, your whole body will relax, you will regain control over your mind and will ultimately feel rejuvenated.
If you’ve built up your steam room sessions up to around 20 minutes, you can even practice mindfulness or meditation inside, as long as you don’t affect the others around you.
Steam Room Risks
When in the steam room, it is important to always “keep an eye” on your body and subjectively monitor your body’s response to the environment. That is the best way to avoid complications and is a good way to fine-tune your mind-body connection. Look for signs like suddenly elevated heart rate, increased blood pressure, headache, dizziness, and lightheadedness to determine whether you’ve overstepped your limits with the steam session duration.
One of the main issues related to prolonged steam room usage is dehydration. While you aren’t losing as much water as you’d lose in a sauna, you still should replenish any lost weight right after you go out. This is why there are weight scales in every spa room in case you’ve ever wondered…
Warm, humid environments are also perfect for the growth of certain fungi and bacteria. A few examples for that are the athlete’s foot condition and other fungal infections that enjoy such conditions. This is why you should always wear a towel to sit on and flip-flops for your feet.
The heat is also very unwelcoming to certain groups of people, including pregnant women, people with diagnosed heart conditions, people struggling from chronic low or high blood pressure, and ones that are taking antibiotics. People with epilepsy also should avoid steam rooms.
One other risk that a lot of people ignore is slipping. People that don’t wear flip-flops or bathroom shoes are exposed to the slippery, wet, tiled floor of the steam room which is why there are so many emergency cases each year from people falling in these places. Never underestimate how slippery the floor is and if you want to exercise inside, make sure you have a yoga cover or some sort of non-slip surface laid out.
Once again, just to be on the safe side of things, always consult with your physician before using a steam room or a sauna.
In summary, there are a huge amount of steam room benefits and risks that are all independently important and should be taken into consideration. While it is fairly enjoyable and relaxing for your body to rest inside the hot humid room, you should also have in mind that your body isn’t created to last far too long in these conditions and can, in turn, struggle to keep up with them. You are the person that knows himself the best so you should be the one that keeps an eye for certain signs from your body that it is time to leave. The best combination after a lengthy steam session is to take an ice-cold shower that will propel your body into the other spectrum of the therapeutical effects of temperature exposure.