I thought I knew why I sauna.
There is a legend that I tell around the hot stones about how, five years ago, I got injured while training for a half marathon.
So it was that, six weeks out from competition, I found myself frantically casting around the Internet for scientifically-backed endurance training techniques that involved, well, zero training.
Then I came across this 2007 study on club runners where three saunas a week for only three weeks led to an astonishing 32 percent increase in time to exhaustion on a treadmill.
Okay, so the saunas were taken immediately after training and the sample size was only six runners — but still.
If I could simply maintain my endurance fitness until the race, then I’d be golden. And so I signed up to the local leisure centre and started sauna-ing.
Lo and behold, six weeks later, I recorded my best ever time at the Gosport Half.
Okay, so the only other time I’d run there it’d been blowing a gale — but still.
I was sold on saunas and have been telling the story of why I sauna to anyone who would listen ever since.
But it’s not true.
A single low-powered running study might have been what first got me through the glass sauna door, but it’s not the reason I keep going back.
And the reason I keep going back has nothing to do with the evidence that saunas reduce blood pressure and inflammation, reduce chances of Alzheimer’s and depression, and 40 percent less likely to, ya know, die young.
No, none of them.
The reason I keep going back is that taking a sauna is, for me, a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is one habit that leads to a cascade of others. A keystone habit can be positive, like how exercising first thing in the morning gives you energy for the whole day.
But it can also be negative, like how checking your phone first thing in the morning sends you into a spiral of doom scrolling that leaves you tired and hopeless for hours.
And that last negative example is the clue to why visiting the sauna is a particularly powerful keystone habit for me: 90 degree heat does terrible things to technology.
But, above all, I most value how visiting the sauna gives me the precious opportunity for two hours of completely screen-free time in the middle of the day.
That sentence deserves its italics.
Busy Is A Decision
Now, before you switch off in disgust, I know that most people can’t take two hours to f-off to the sauna on a Tuesday.
I’m very lucky to work for myself and set my own hours and workload. The downside, of course, is that I set my own hours and workload.
When you work for yourself, there is no clock to punch and your work is never done.
Last year, on average, I spent more than 46 hours per week looking at screens. That’s six and a half hours per day, which is already a lot and doesn’t even account for holidays or weekends when I’m not at my desk.
On heavy weeks, that went up to over nine hours of screentime a day.
Two hours to read, reflect and recharge in the middle of the day is an investment that pays back more, beyond measure, in creativity and energy, than it takes in time.
This keystone habit creates a significant break in the day, triggering a cascade of other positive habits, both at the sauna — reading, rest, reflection as well as talking to strangers — and afterwards, in the way I approach the remains of the day — with calm, perspective and creativity.
But it takes a counter-intuitive psychological switch to fully embrace that ‘busy is a decision’ and that sometimes the best thing you can do is nothing at all.
So I leave my sauna kit by the front door, ready to go.
A Note On Accessibility
Sadly, in the UK, not everyone will have an affordable nearby sauna. My only advice is: move to Finland.
Actually, my only advice is to take a second look. Most council-run leisure centres have a sauna these days.
That’s where I used to go until I realised that the sauna was too important a habit to neglect and that the 15-minute bike ride was too high a cost. I am now a short-term member of a local hotel spa.
Other people join the gym; I go for the sauna.
Despite everything that the sauna gives me, it still sounds incredibly indulgent to me. I dread to think how you see it. 😂
Here’s how I rationalise it: if I keep up my habit of going three times a week, then the average cost per visit will be £3.15 — much cheaper than the leisure centre and not much more than a cup of coffee.
My point is: if you find a keystone habit that works for you, do whatever you can to make it happen. It’s worth the investment.