A man in the US named Jack Dorsey revealed this week that he goes to the sauna almost every day, which was then reported by news outlets around the world.
Using a sauna every day is pretty unusual — even here in Estonia where saunas have remained an important part of life for thousands of years — but the attention had more to do with the fact that Jack happens to be the billionaire CEO of Twitter.
While being interviewed on a fitness podcast, Jack revealed several unconventional health habits, including that he uses an infrared sauna during the week and a ‘dry sauna’ tent at the weekends. His sauna routine includes going between the leiliruum (hot room) and ice water three times.
There were a few problems with how this was reported in the media.
Firstly, Jack does not actually have ‘three saunas per day’ as some reported. That would be like saying someone goes to the gym ten times per day, just because they do ten different exercises within a single session. This is an important point for understanding the origins of the sauna and how it is still practised today across northern Europe: The sauna is the whole experience, which includes multiple warm up and cool downs. It’s not just a hot room or the brief amount of time you spend there. We even include the part spent enjoying food and drink with friends afterwards as an essential part of ‘going to the sauna’.
Secondly, the enhanced benefits of infrared therapy are questionable. There are often claims that infrared produces some kind of ‘deep sweat’, but the truth is that sweat is sweat. At best, the science says that the benefits of being warmed by infrared are as good as in any other sauna. Many sauna traditionalists though would object to the word ‘sauna’ even being used to describe infrared therapy.
There’s also no reason to call an ordinary sauna a ‘dry sauna’.
After that, there were a range of fitness experts arguing either in favour or against the benefits of Jack’s sauna routine. Both sides repeated common sauna myths though.
The most frequent claim made in favour of sauna use is that it helps people ‘sweat out toxins’, but the science is clear that this isn’t true. In the article linked above, one fitness expert then weighed in to warn of the risks of sauna use, giving an example that pregnant people mustn’t go to the sauna. Again, the science says that just isn’t true.
There are a range of health benefits to using the sauna, as well as a few cautions to consider to ensure you get those benefits, but media reporting of this issue is quite poor and much more scientific research is still needed.
In the meantime though, the most important benefit of sauna use is already very clear, well researched …and almost entirely ignored. Ironically, it’s a benefit that Jack Dorsey needs to understand more than anyone.
Friendship is the key to good health
Humans have evolved as social creatures. We use friendships as a mechanism to both protect us against external threats and soothe us from internal stress.
On a large scale, more meaningful connections leads to greater peace and prosperity. For individuals, more meaningful friendships leads to more happiness and better health.
And there’s real science behind this.
Before we discuss saunas though, let’s talk about pubs. This article below in the UK’s Financial Times does a great job breaking down the science behind why going to the pub regularly can actually be healthy. It’s not because of the alcohol, which doesn’t bring these same benefits if drunk alone at home. It’s the social interactions and sense of community that it helps create.
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One study showed that people who regularly went to their local pub “had more close friends, felt happier, were more satisfied with their lives, more embedded into their local communities, and more trusting of those around them.”
Here’s just one of many recent studies about how that impacts physical health. Julianne Holt-Lunstad examined 148 studies of people who had heart attacks in order to calculate which factors best predicted their chance of survival a year later. The most important factor turned out to be the number and quality of friendships that they had. That turned out to be more important than factors like smoking, drinking, diet, weight and other aspects of their lifestyle.
The FT writer also gives his own anecdotal evidence from talking to former soldiers who, it seems, are more likely to fall ill after leaving the military even though they continue to stay healthy. The incredible theory is that simply leaving the close comradely of Army life is enough to make you more susceptible to disease.
The sauna is a social network
Bear in mind that local pubs in Britain have a similar role to the sauna in places like Estonia. I’ve lived in both countries, and also South Africa where I see the BBQ (or braai) in the same way. These are community focal points and the default way in which friends gather.
The role of the sauna has changed a lot over thousands of years, but one thing that has remained the same across northern Europe is that it’s a communal experience. Going to the sauna enables us to connect more deeply with people around us. In fact, one study even claims that men who sweat together are more likely to co-operate together afterwards.
Apparently, women are already good at co-operating.
It’s particularly ironic that much of the media coverage this week described Jack Dorsey’s sauna use as an example of how the super rich elite now like to live. Throughout history, saunas have been enjoyed by both the rich and poor, although are more commonly associated with the latter. In fact, there are even writings from elite thinkers who warned against communal bathing because of its power as a social equaliser.
In Estonia, we even have an old belief that people shouldn’t argue on the same day as going to the sauna (usually the Saturday) and must make up with anyone you’ve argued with before going inside — and you certainly can’t argue inside either.
Jack Dorsey indicated that he always went to the sauna alone and we think that is a real shame. Not only is he not getting the biggest benefit of going to the sauna, but he’s also missing an important lesson.
Unfortunately, the social network built by Jack is having a hard time supporting meaningful connections between real people. It’s too easy to manipulate with accounts that don’t even represent real people. It’s too easily become a place to spread misinformation and hate.
In contrast to the benefits of going to the local pub (or sauna), Twitter seems to be making people angrier and less trusting of those around them. That harms our societies, as well as the health and happiness of individuals.
It’s not too late to change this and build a better online social network, Jack. But we recommend you start by inviting real people to your saunas in future and having real conversations about how Twitter can rediscover its humanity.
About ‘Estonian Saunas’
Thanks for reading. The Estonian Saunas blog is run by Anni and Adam, explorers and exporters of Estonian saunas.
Anni is a green building specialist who grew up here in Estonia immersed in sauna culture, while Adam is a väliseestlane (‘foreign Estonian’) whose family were exiled to the UK during Soviet times but he has now returned and is still trying to understand the sauna — and everything else about his Estonian heritage.
Together, we love finding weird and wonderful saunas all over Estonia and telling the world about them. Check out our plan to make 100 Estonian saunas more famous around the world.
We also offer two saunas in Tallinn that you can visit. Both are based on the best of Estonian design and technology, although in very different ways. The first is our smoke sauna, Rangi saun, which combines an ancient sauna heating technique with a contemporary Estonian design. The second is our WiFi-controlled e-sauna, Tondi Saun, which is part of our apartment that you can book through Airbnb.
In addition to reading our blog, you can follow Estonian Saunas on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. There’s also a Facebook group for fans of Estonian saunas where you can share advice and stories.
Finally, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.