I Say Sauna, You Say Banya

By Guest Blogger Liz Layton, GIC

You think it’s cold here?  WIMPS!  Check out some real winter weather – and prescriptions for warming up.

In Vermont, cold weather and snow can start in October and last through April.  Lake Champlain towns may get 60 inches of snow a year, while the Green Mountains get covered in up to 120 inches.  The average winter temperature is 22 degrees Fahrenheit.   So it’s understandable that ski places really took to the Jacuzzi after it was invented by an Italian family in California in the late sixties.

In Hokkaido, Japan’s big island of the north, winter temperatures average 21°F while inland basin areas can drop to a frigid -22° F. The lowest recorded temperature in Japan was -42°F (Asahikawa, January 1902).  No wonder Japanese baths have a long tradition as community meeting places – from the many hot springs to public bathhouses.

Northern Russian winters are long and harsh, with plenty of snow and temperatures falling below -40°F. The coldest inhabited place on Earth is the Russian Far East. The lowest temperature registered there was −96.2 °F (Yakutia, 1924).   Clearly there’s a reason for banyas – the winter Russian steam bath ritual. 

In Finland winter is the longest season and lasts from 100 days in southwestern Finland to 200 days in Lapland. The coldest temperatures in winter go as low as -58°F in Lapland and eastern Finland; to -13°F in the “warmer” regions.  So of course Finns built little heated houses where you could sit inside and sweat while the wind blows outside.  According to the Lonely Planet travel blog, “Sauna is seen as a sacred place in Finland, where babies were once born and ailments treated. Finns still take their sweating needs seriously – there are two million saunas in this country of five million. No wonder Finland is home to the International Sauna Society.”  

A sauna is a small room or house where people communally enjoy heat that promotes sweating and relaxation.  When they say heat, they mean it.  Russian and European saunas can achieve temperatures over 200°F, but the United States limits sauna heat to 194°F. Infrared saunas are generally less hot. The key to enjoyment is alternating periods of hot and cool – generally about 15 minutes of heat to 10 minutes of cooling off.

Although even today “many middle-aged Finns boast of being born in the sauna,” American doctors caution pregnant women, particularly in the first trimester, to avoid high heat including steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs, and Jacuzzis.  However, there are also studies which have found that saunas can be helpful to cardiac patients.  If you have concerns, talk with your doctor before visiting a sauna (and take a look at the medical journals referenced at the end of this blog).

Ask about the type of sauna and how hot it will be inside:

Finnish dry saunas 160°-194°F

Russian steam saunas 90°-120°F

Infrared saunas 80°-125°F

Finns say “In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.” Ask about etiquette at the sauna you visit – particularly if you care whether or not there are separate sections for men and women and if clothing is optional or not.

If you’re visiting a hotel or have a gym membership, use of the sauna, steam room, or Jacuzzi is probably included.  For other rates, check the list of Local Saunas and Steam Baths below.  All of them cost much less than a ticket on a plane, boat, or train to a warmer place!


  • Do not drink alcohol beforehand.
  • Shower before entering the sauna.
  • Bring a towel to sit on.
  • Remove jewelry – metal gets hot!
  • Remove contact lenses.
  • Drink plenty of water during the sauna.
  • Spend 8-10 minutes in the first dry sauna session and no more than 15 minutes on later sessions. Limit steam saunas to 10 minutes.
  • Between each session in the heat, spend 10-15 minutes cooling down.
  • Make showers cool, not cold.


Dillons Russian Steam Bath
Chelsea, MA

Banya Russian Steam Bath & Spa
Allston, MA

Health clubs/Gyms

Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009 Jan;90(1):173-7. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2008.06.029.
Safety, acceptance, and physiologic effects of sauna bathing in people with chronic heart failure: a pilot report.
Basford JR, Oh JK, Allison TG, Sheffield CG, et al, Mayo Clinic Rochester, Rochester, MN, USA.
Sauna bathing under the moderate and supervised conditions of this study appears to be well tolerated and may be safe for people with CHF. More research is needed to further evaluate the safety and potential benefits of this approach.

Can Fam Physician. Beever R, 2009 Jul;55(7):691-6.
Far-infrared saunas for treatment of cardiovascular risk factors: summary of published evidence.
Four papers support the use of FIRS therapy for those with congestive heart failure and 5 papers support its use for those with coronary risk factors.

Int J Circumpolar Health. Kukkonen-Harjula K, Kauppinen K, 2006 Jun;65(3):195-205.
Health effects and risks of sauna bathing.
Baths did not appear to be particularly risky to patients with hypertension, coronary heart disease and congestive heart failure, when they were medicated and in a stable condition.

Ann N Y Acad Sci. Kauppinen K, Canadian Sauna Society, 1997 Mar 15;813:654-62.
Facts and fables about sauna
Cardiovascular patients with essential hypertension, coronary heart disease or past myocardial infarction, who are stable and relatively asymptomatic in their everyday life may also take sauna baths without undue risk. As a rule of thumb, if a person can walk into a sauna, he or she can walk out of it. Misuse and abuse of the sauna are another matter.

For more about Finnish saunas and Russian steam baths:




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