As a hot yoga and hot pilates community, we have long experienced the benefits of regular heat exposure. We love coming to the hot room day in and day out. We feel more energized, flexible, even nicer when we sweat it all out! And now scientific researchers have data backing us up.
In one of Dr. Huberman’s latest episodes on the Huberman podcast, he walks us through several studies on the health benefits of heat exposure. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and tenured Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He focuses his work and podcast on specific protocols you can use in your daily life to get the most from your health practices.
The heat studies he highlights, show statistically significant benefits of deliberate and consistent heat exposure. Many of them, you probably don’t associate with hot yoga or hot pilates. We’ve known our practice brings us huge benefits because we’ve experienced them for years. But you might wonder if there’s any real benefit to hot yoga and hot pilates beyond getting your body moving. We’re here to share the proof science shows us in this pudding. Let’s dive in.
Benefit 1 – Deliberate Heat Exposure Reduces Cardiac Events & Stroke
For years members have asked how they can get the benefits of a cardio workout if they only participate in hot yoga classes. And that’s one reason we offer our hot pilates classes. With most of our pilates classes, we use the high intensity interval training method, or HIIT. Research shows HIIT delivers one of the most effective cardio workouts on the planet.
We believe practicing hot yoga AND hot pilates each week, gives you a well-rounded workout regimen. Good for your muscles, good for your heart, good for your mind and soul. However, most of us who practice hot yoga daily already understand what a great cardio workout our regular 26 & 2 classes provide.
By contrast, many people want to see it in their heart rate numbers to believe they’re getting real cardiac benefits from hot yoga. And that’s what makes us so excited about the data we’re seeing in these heat exposure studies. They show just how much the heat exposure itself works on behalf of your heart.
The Data for Improved Cardiac Health
A study on heat exposure from 2018, published by BMC Medicine followed 1,688 participants, about 50% women and 50% men. The study focused on saunas as the method of deliberate heat exposure. The temperature in the sauna rooms varied from about 86 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom of the room to 176 degrees at the top of the room. As a comparison, we practice pilates in a room heated to 90 – 95 degrees, and we practice hot yoga between 105 – 115 degrees.
The study found a statistically significant correlation between frequency of heat exposure and reduction of high blood pressure, hypertension, stroke, and pulmonary disease. They also found an increase in circulation and cardiovascular health. That means with heat exposure alone, these participants experienced an effective cardio workout.
Specifically, they compared one visit to the sauna per week with daily visits to the sauna…and each frequency in between. The researchers found, the more times per week the participant deliberately exposed themselves to heat, the better their cardiovascular, circulatory, and pulmonary outcomes.
So, if you’re looking for a cardio workout to go with your yoga, just come into the hot room. You’ll experience all the benefits of yoga, while giving your heart the cardio workout it needs. And the more often you come, the more your heart benefits.
Benefit 2 – Reduce Cortisol with Heat and Cold
Why would we want to reduce cortisol? Well, cortisol is an important hormone that helps us wake up and get active for the day. But recent studies have shown that most of us have high levels of cortisol in our bodies due to chronic stress. And that keeps our bodies in a state of fight or flight. Meaning, we douse our bodies throughout the day with mega pints of stress hormone.
While we might want higher levels of cortisol at the beginning of the day, as we get closer to bedtime, we’d like those levels to decrease. That way we can destress and get the rest we need to start again tomorrow.
The American Journal of Men’s Health published a study on the effects of repeated hot thermal stress and cold immersion therapy. This study followed 30 young adult men as they practiced deliberate heat exposure followed by shorter segments of cold exposure. The researchers found a statistically significant reduction in cortisol, the stress hormone, after four sessions of heat therapy followed by cold exposure.
Practically in Connecticut
Since we practice yoga here in Connecticut, we have the perfect opportunity for cold exposure after class! When we say cold exposure, we mean around 50 – 60 degrees. Our members can literally just walk outside most of the year. And the study shows we really only need about 1 minute of cold exposure after our heat therapy to reduce cortisol levels.
So, come fall, after your afternoon or nighttime class, take a minute (literally, one minute) to hang out in the parking lot before hopping in your warm car to drive home. You’ll lower your cortisol levels, destress, and sleep better at night.
Benefit 3 – Better Sleep with Heat Exposure
And speaking of better sleep…heat exposure at night can help you sleep better. This is all about variation in body temperature with your circadian rhythm. Your body warms up throughout the day. And as you get closer to bedtime, your body temperature lowers.
But wait, you might say. If we’re trying to lower body temperature, why would we heat it up?
Your body will react to heat by dropping your core body temperature in the moments immediately following exposure. A drop in core body temperature signals bedtime is approaching. This helps you transition to sleep. If the goal of your hot yoga practice is better sleep, you can maximize the effects of your practice by attending classes later in the afternoon (after 4 p.m.) or evening.
Benefit 4 – Heat Up Your Metabolism
Who wants more fat from practicing hot yoga, raise your hand? For most of us, that’s a hard pass! But what if we told you there are different kinds of fat? And some fat helps you burn more fat, faster. While that might sound confusing, that’s exactly what brown fat does for you! And if you’re working out to burn more fat or rev up your metabolism, you want to turn that white fat into brown fat – stat!
What in the world is brown fat anyway?
White fat stores fat cells. It’s saving it up just in case we need it later. We’re very familiar with white fat. It’s exactly what we mean when we say we want to lose fat. It’s the fat that hangs onto our bellies, hips, and thighs.
By contrast, brown fat is full of mitochondria. You remember that word from science class! Mitochondria are the powerhouse cells. They are energy! And they give brown fat it’s brown color. Those mitochondria are there to burn fat. When our bodies need to use fat, we turn white fat into brown fat, so it’s ready as fuel.
Heat Exposure Turns White Fat Brown
Practicing heat exposure allows us to burn fat faster. That’s because it tells our body we need that fat as fuel. The body turns the white fat into brown fat. And that brown fat is packed with fat burning energy. That’s what we call an increase in metabolism. You’ll want at least 60 minutes of heat exposure each week to get the fat burning and metabolic revving benefits.
Benefit 5 – Turn up the Happy
Most people get ornery when they get hot. But would you believe, when you deliberately expose yourself to heat each week, you can boost your mood? And it’s exactly because you’re uncomfortable. Again, it’s counterintuitive, but science says it’s true.
So what’s going on here?
Mood Boosting Science
When we expose ourselves to short-term or acute stress, we activate our endorphin system. Specifically, dynorphin kicks in. And that leads to a negative emotional state. That’s what’s happening when your body wants to leave the hot room. Your system is agitated. You’re uncomfortable. Quitting feels like the only option.
However, if you decide to stick it out, something magic happens. Your body responds to this state of agitation by increasing the receptors for endorphins. Basically, your body realizes it’s under acute stress. So, it goes into overdrive to open up all available pathways you have to feel better. That’s called the upregulation of chemical pathways for boosting mood.
Deliberately exposing yourself to acute stress increases your body’s ability to experience a good mood. You’ll experience pleasure and happiness more fully than you were capable of before the acute stress.
Big caveat. Your body does NOT respond this way to chronic stress. It normalizes. The endorphin activation only happens in response to short-term, acute stress situations.
Deliberate heat exposure does come with risk. Overheating your body can cause serious damage. If you’re experiencing hyperthermia, here are ways you can reduce your core body temperature quickly. Get the palms of your hands, bottoms of your feet, and the upper part of your face in contact with something cool. You want it cool enough to reduce the heat but not so cold that it constricts your blood vessels. Think cool, not ice.
Cramps might be the signal. One of the first signs that your core body temperature is too hot are body cramps. So, pay attention to the signals. If you’re in the middle of a class, and you’re experiencing cramps, let the instructor know right away. You might be too hot OR, more likely, you might be dehydrated.
Hydrate with Electrolytes
Hydration before and after class is key. This is a constant safety refrain here at YogaSol. You need to hydrate your body before and after class. When we practice in the hot room, we lose fluids and important electrolytes. Drinking electrolyte rich liquids like coconut water, before and after class, can keep you from experiencing heat related symptoms. If you forget your hydration, we have electrolyte beverages for sale in our retail area at the studio.
How to Practice for Biggest Benefits
So, let’s sum this up. Science reveals deliberate heat exposure benefits your health. Excellent news. And how you practice to attain the benefits of heat exposure depends on your goals.
For cardio benefits and longevity, a daily practice will give you the biggest benefit. Specifically 3 – 7 times each week maximizes your results.
Oddly, for mental health or to boost your mood, you want to experience discomfort during your practice. So don’t get too comfy, or you won’t get the biggest benefit. Our suggestion is to vary your classes. Taking different yoga and pilates classes can keep you agitated.
If you want to reduce stress hormones, practice once per week and add cold exposure after your class. Remember, just one minute of cold exposure at 50 – 60 degrees will do the trick.
For better sleep, practice in the afternoon or evening. You’ll give your body the signal to start the nighttime cool down for bed.