It's been unusually hot for the past week—even by Los Angeles standards—and the air conditioning in my West Hollywood office has been out of commission for three days. It's the kind of heat that makes it nearly impossible to focus on anything other than how hot you are and how divine an ice cream cone would taste. On this particularly sticky day, I leave the office early, but instead of driving straight to the beach, my usual respite from sweltering L.A. weather, I'm headed to Studio City to visit an urban sweat lodge.
Named Shape House, this spa-like facility offers 55-minute sweat sessions that involve being wrapped up in a far infrared–heated bed. Unlike a traditional sauna, there is no sitting on wooden benches in towels with a tribe of women as warm air blasts through a heater. In this private experience, far infrared heat, a type of warmth generated by light, is used to heat up your core from the inside out. It's similar to what you might experience being outside on a sunny day and is thought to bring about a host of health benefits, which is part of the reason the practice has garnered an impressive following of athletes and celebrity clients like Selena Gomez, Demi Moore, and the Kardashians.
When I arrive, I'm given a pair of sweatpants, thick ankle socks, and a long sleeve T-shirt to wear. Donning my new attire, I'm escorted to a private room containing a bed that closely resembles a sleeping bag of sorts. I'm told not to meditate—something that goes against everything I know as an Angeleno—and, instead, am instructed to watch something light-hearted on the TV that's mounted on the wall during my session. This is meant to act as a distraction from the intense far-infrared heat I'm about to endure, all in the hopes of experiencing the health benefits of sweating.
These positive effects are thought to include weight loss, detoxification, heart health, muscle recovery, immunity, and clear, youthful skin.
Securely tucked into my bed with only my head exposed, the session begins. The thing about far-infrared heat is that the intensity builds slowly. At first, it feels like I could lie here forever. It's warm but not nearly as oppressive as I had expected. It's not until about 15 minutes into an episode of Modern Family, my distraction of choice, that I begin to feel the heat sharpen. Beads of sweat slowly roll down my forehead, my palms feel clammy beneath the thick covers, and my heart rate kicks up. Although I haven't moved an inch, this relaxing session just became a cardiovascular workout.
"The reason we do this is it's a very quick way to get you to respond almost like you are having a fever," explains Sophie Chiche, founder of Shape House. Essentially, once heated, the body attempts to cool itself down by breaking a sweat. Chiche compares this process to running an air-conditioner in a hot room. Just as it takes a lot of energy for your AC to lower the temperature of a room, it takes a lot of energy for your body to cool itself down. "At the very end, your heart is in cardio and will be beating like you did a 10K," she says.
Toward the end of the second episode of Modern Family, I'm finding it challenging to focus on anything other than the heat. My body is sopping wet, and I'm acutely aware of how long I've been lying in my sweaty cocoon. I can feel my heart thumping in my chest, and I know my body is working in overdrive to cool me down from the 160-degree far infrared heat I've been exposed to. I take deep breaths in an attempt to slow my heart rate, just as I do when I finish a long run.
Finally, a woman comes to my rescue, signaling that my 55 minutes are up. I emerge from my bed to relax with water, orange slices, and—counterintuitively—hot tea. As ludicrous as it sounds, sipping on a hot beverage can help you cool down by signaling the body to kick-start internal cooling mechanisms, like sweating, that lower your body temperature.
Over the course of the past hour, I've burned somewhere in the ballpark of 800 to 1400 calories, according to Chiche, although there are many factors that could make this number different for everyone, she notes. While you might be quick to assume that burning so many calories in such an intense setting can't be good for you (trust me, I was skeptical, too), Chiche assures that it's no more dangerous than any other cardio workout. "The reason we know it's safe is because it's elevating your heart, which is very similar to when you work out," she explains.
"Then your heart comes down very, very quickly, which means we've pushed your heart to do something which it kind of naturally could do."
Although your heartbeat quickens, your face turns red, and your body burns calories, a sweat session differs from a regular workout in that it does not allow you to build muscle. So why do it? According to Chiche, there are many benefits to sweating that may sway you to embrace the practice. Curious to learn more, I also tapped Josh Axe, DNM, CNS, DC, founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com, to better understand the benefits of this natural bodily function. Here are all the ways sweating it out can be beneficial to your physical and mental well-being.
1. Weight Loss
First and foremost, sweating is thought to boost weight loss. Yes, you may lose water weight during a session that will inevitably come right back, but because your body is working so hard to cool you down, you're also using energy and burning calories, which contributes to more permanent weight loss, Chiche explains.
While the ability of sweat to simply detoxify the body is often debated, Axe explains that the skin can remove toxic compounds from the body. "We really do flush out certain toxins through our sweat," he says. In fact, a 2012 study found that sweating plays an important role in expelling heavy metals like mercury, lead, cadmium, and arsenic from the body because they dissolve readily in water. However, Axe explains that sweat can't flush out all toxic compounds, so it's important to drink filtered water and follow a healthy diet in order avoid other low-dose chemical threats.
3. Heart Health
As Chiche explains, putting the body in a situation where it needs to cool itself down by sweating can get your heart pumping similar to a cardio workout. Additionally, Axe points out that sweating, whether it be from physical exercise or from sitting in a sauna environment, can reduce the risk of cardiovascular health problems. He cites a study published in 2015 that followed Finnish men for 20 years, finding that those who sweat in a sauna more frequently were less likely to develop a fatal disease over the course of the study.
4. Muscle Recovery
Although a sweat session won't help you build muscle, it can aid in muscle recovery. "Sweating boosts circulation and helps flush out lactic acid," according to Axe. This can alleviate soreness and speed up the recovery process.
Axe explains that the skin is considered a vital part of the immune system, which makes sense considering it's often the first line of defense against everything you come in contact with each day. "Any body fluids are part of this biological defense system, serving as a deterrent for germs to take hold," he says. Additionally, he cites a German study that discovered human sweat contains a natural germ-killing protein called dermcidin, which can protect again strains of germs that cause diseases like MRSA and tuberculosis.
Just as sweat can flush out certain toxins, it can also expel impurities like pollutants, dirt, and makeup embedded in the skin, according to Shape House's website. It's thought to improve the tone, clarity, and texture of the skin and is known to improve circulation, which can benefit the skin as well.
Like any other workout, sweating can release endorphins, which are hormones that trigger positive feelings in the body. This can do wonders for your mood and overall well-being.
While you certainly don't have to venture to an urban sweat lodge on a hot summer's day to experience the benefits of sweating, you can find a practice that works for you in order to get in on the feel-good effects of this natural bodily function. Just be sure to recover from any cardio workout or sweat session with plenty of water to keep your body hydrated.