Fall and winter are my seasons. I thrive in cold weather and melt into a puddle of sweat and complaints when the temperature rises above, like, 75 degrees. (Right now, it’s 43 degrees and I’m wearing a skirt with bare legs. Sue me.)
It stands to reason, then, that sitting in a 160-degree room for 60 minutes would be my actual idea of hell.
But, as averse to hot weather as I am, I absolutely love trying weird wellness trends. (Intermittent fasting and ice baths, anyone?) So when I started to hear my friends from the gym talk about infrared saunas, I knew had to try it.
An infrared sauna uses infrared light (a type of electromagnetic radiation—don’t worry, it’s safe) to create heat instead of steam or hot air. Unlike a traditional sauna, infrared saunas don’t heat the air around you. Instead, they use infrared lamps to warm your body directly. Proponents say that spending time in an infrared sauna can promote better sleep and relaxation to relieve sore muscles and detox your body. (You know, that trendy—and often completely meaningless—wellness term. But I digress.)
After a little bit of research, I chose to sweat at Higher Dose, an infrared sauna spa with locations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. While the brand does have two stand-alone locations in NYC, I am lazy, and opted to go to the Higher Dose outpost at the Equinox around the corner from my apartment. Most spas have some kind of intro deal, but be aware that infrared saunas are not cheap. One 60-minute sweat at Higher Dose will set you back $65. (There’s also a 30-minute option for $45.)
At 7 a.m., I dragged myself out of bed and headed to my first 60-minute session, feeling equal parts tired, skeptical and a little apprehensive. When I got to the spa, a nice woman showed me around the private room where I’d be sweating. I found it a little odd that I didn’t have to sign any kind of safety waiver (you know, since I’d be sitting in a 160-degree room for an hour), but then remembered I had checked, "Yes, I agree," when I registered online. (Note to self: Be better about reading things I sign.)
The room was surprisingly spacious and contained a sauna (basically, a wooden box with a bench and a glass front), a few chairs, a sink and a fancy water dispenser. I stripped down to nothing, wrapped myself in a towel and got into the sauna.
My first reaction? It was certainly hot, but not unbearably so. (The temperature in the room hovered around 160 degrees for the entirety of the session.) I’ve done traditional saunas before, and this was a much more pleasant experience. Because an infrared sauna dispenses dry heat, it doesn’t have the same swampy, I’m-having-trouble-breathing effect. While I did sweat (a lot), it was surprisingly comforting to just chill in the heat for a while. It almost felt a little meditation-y—even though I arrived in a not-so-great mood, I felt completely zen after the first eight minutes.
I had no problem staying in the sauna for the full 60 minutes, but I did start to get a little bored around the 45-minute mark. Luckily, Higher Dose has AUX cords, so you can stream your own music into the sauna. (In case you’re wondering, I listened to Aimee Mann’s entire Grammy Award-winning album, Mental Illness, one-and-a-half times. Partially because it’s that good and partially because I was too nervous to touch my phone with my sweat-drenched hands.)
Usually immediately following a session, you’d hop into a cold shower to cool down. But as we already established, I am lazy, so I opted to take the short walk back to my place and shower there. Despite the sweat still pouring out of my body, it felt like I floated out of the gym. I’m not a morning person, and yet I felt incredible. I was light, airy and energized—but not in a jittery way—for the remainder of the day, and fell asleep way faster than I normally do. Could this all have been a placebo? Sure, but I don’t really care—I felt that good.
I was curious about the placebo thing, so when I got home, I did some more research. And as I kind of guessed, some of the loftier claims aren’t backed up by science (chiefly, weight loss and detoxification). But some studies (like this one from Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands) have determined that infrared saunas can be an effective tool for reducing joint pain and stiffness. Another study from Hefei University of Technology in Hefei, China, found that infrared saunas might improve your blood vessels’ ability to expand and adapt to changes in blood pressure. (In general, flexible blood vessels are good for long-term heart health.)
Like with many trends in the wellness space, if you approach infrared saunas as a miracle cure for all of your ailments, you’ll likely be disappointed. But, if you’re maybe-kinda-sorta interested in trying it out as another component of an overall healthy lifestyle, I highly recommend it.
And yes, I’ve already booked another session.