Michele Olson, Ph.D., F.A.C.S.M., C.S.C.S., recently led a study looking at the effect of an infrared sauna on flexibility. Dr. Olson, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery and the lead research investigator at the Scharff-Olson Human Performance Lab, is well-known for her research on Pilates, energy expenditure and abdominal training.
In her study, Dr. Olson looked at flexibility. Her researchers found doing the same stretching routine while in the infrared sauna, versus doing it without sauna therapy, yielded superior acute changes in flexibility.
Participants rested for 20 minutes, then stretched for 10 minutes in both a typical training room (70 degrees Fahrenheit, 50% humidity) and a full-spectrum infrared sauna, using mid- infrared and far-infrared wavelengths. They stretched single hamstrings (seated and standing), and double hamstrings and low back (seated).
After stretching in a typical training room, average range of motion increased .64 inches for the right hamstring, .74 inches for the left hamstring and 1.0 inch for low back and both hamstrings. To contrast, the average range of motion after stretching in the sauna increased by 1.95 inches for the right hamstring, 1.45 inches for the left hamstring and 2.15 inches for low back and both hamstrings.
To be sure, both incidents of stretching enhanced participants’ range of motion, but doing the stretch routine while exposed to the infrared sauna elicited higher, greater and more pronounced changes in acute range of motion in the hip, hamstrings and low back.
According to Dr. Olson, “It could take several weeks of flexibility training on a regular basis to achieve in the increased flexibility we saw in these brief sauna sessions. It’s not just a cursory effect. Our subjects were able to stretch more than two inches farther on the same leg! On average, the improvement in acute flexibility from stretching in the sauna was 2.4 times higher compared to the improvement in flexibility from doing the same stretch routine in a typical environment. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends we engage in flexibility training a minimum of twice a week. The less we move, the harder it gets. Now we know sauna sessions make you more flexible without exerting very much effort.”
In a recent issue of Massage magazine, Dr. Olson recommends full-spectrum infrared saunas to massage therapists. She notes the sauna benefits for both the patients and therapists: [massage] clients coming to the table directly from the sauna would already have increased blood flow to tissues and decreased friction forces, so joints would be more maneuverable. Muscles should then have a heightened response to massage, and the rate at which clients realize changes in flexibility will be enhanced.
For both athletes and those who struggle with chronic pain, this study demonstrates that the infrared sauna can be key to muscle recovery and pain relief. Benefits to the increased range of motion achieved through infrared sauna therapy include joint mobility, less friction in the joints, and enabling of joint function to diminish stiffness and joint relaxation.
APL (American Performance Labs) is a research group dedicated to the collection, analysis, and dissemination of published research and articles on the science of hyperthermia and the various applications, technologies and protocols for the use of hyperthermic conditioning.