COLD. Dark. Drizzly. Whoever decided this should be the season for salads, smoothies and extra gym sessions was surely a sadist.
But if you’re struggling to switch from hibernation mode to full-on health kick, there’s one thing you might actually feel like doing – taking a nice, hot bath.
Taking a bath could help you wash away the blues — and even burn calories[/caption]
Just 4% of us in the UK regularly make time for one these days, but science suggests a good soak has real health benefits.
Researchers believe it could help with maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, improve sleep quality and mood and even burn off a few extra calories. How’s that for #selfcare?
“When you get into a hot bath, your body has to try to prevent itself from overheating,” says Dr Steve Faulkner, an exercise physiologist at Nottingham Trent University.
“It does this by widening blood vessels to try to transfer some of the heat from the blood into the surrounding atmosphere. This change then has an impact on blood pressure, so to maintain stable pressure, your heart rate increases, too.”
Researchers believe taking a hot bath forces your body to prevent itself from overheating which has potential health benefits[/caption]
The potential health benefits of taking a bath are thought to stem from this reaction to heat.
Research also suggests that people who regularly use saunas or hot tubs have a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Almost as good as a workout?
“When you take a hot bath, you see a number of physiological responses that are very similar to what you see in exercise,” explains Steve, whose recent research has shown that taking an hour-long soak can burn around 140 calories – approximately the same as a half-hour walk.
In his study, half the male volunteers took a hot bath (at a very toasty 40°C) while the others did an hour of cycling.
Taking an hour-long soak can burn around 140 calories[/caption]
As you would expect, the cycling group burned more calories – however, both of the groups had similar blood sugar levels for 24 hours after having the bath or doing the workout.
Blood sugar is an important measure of metabolic health – persistently raised levels can point to diabetes.
Normally, Steve explains, you’d expect blood sugar levels to be steadier in people who exercise, as physical exertion primes the muscles to use glucose for energy. However, in this case a bath seemed to be just as beneficial.
“It’s still not a shortcut to fitness or a replacement for exercise,” warns Steve. “It can mimic some of the benefits of exercise, but not everything. But for people who can’t exercise, perhaps because of specific health conditions or disability, it could be a useful option.”
It washes away the blues
There’s a good reason a miserable day makes slipping into a warm bath so tempting.
A series of studies by psychologists from Yale University have suggested that taking a bath can help with feelings of loneliness.
Studies have found that the act of a warm bath can act as a substitute for social warmth which can improve the way we feel[/caption]
It is thought that the physical warmth acts as a kind of substitute for social warmth, unconsciously improving the way we feel.
Meanwhile, a small German study published in 2018 found that regular hot baths were more effective at alleviating symptoms of moderate to severe depression than exercise. For eight weeks, volunteers were asked either to soak in a 40°C bath for 30 minutes, twice a week, or do two 40-45 minute sessions of aerobic exercise per week.
Overall, those who took the baths showed the biggest improvement – scoring an average six points lower on a scale commonly used to determine the severity of a person’s depression, while the exercisers scored just three points lower.
The bathing group saw results after two weeks, while the exercise group took longer to feel any benefit. Volunteers also found it much easier to stick to having regular baths than regular exercise.
The researchers believe the increase in core temperature from the hot bath helps to regulate your circadian rhythm (body clock) and improve sleep, which is often disturbed for people suffering with depression.
One Japanese spa offers its customers green tea, sake and ramen noodle baths.
It says the antioxidants in green tea and sake provide a boost to your immunity, while the pork broth in the ramen bath contains collagen, which is good for your skin.
We’re not entirely convinced…
The perfect post-gym soak
Despite the image we have of marathon-running types taking ice baths to soothe tired muscles, a warm soak might actually be a better idea after a regular workout, suggests Steve.
“There’s some evidence from the last few years that frequent cold or ice baths after exercise will blunt your adaptive response from exercise,” he says.
Taking hot baths can even help strengthen your immune system, research found[/caption]
Your adaptive response is how your body makes you fitter, such as building muscle and improving aerobic capacity.
“A cold bath after exercise can reduce inflammation after training,” Steve explains – and yes, this should help with sore, tight muscles. “But the downside is you need to have this inflammatory response to improve your performance in the long run.”
Experts at Bangor University have also reported that hot baths could boost the immune system, something they said might be useful to regular gym-goers, as heavy exercise temporarily lowers immunity, making you more susceptible to bugs.
You’ll get your glow back
“Vasodilation – the widening of blood vessels – and improved circulation to the surface of the skin you get with a hot bath should give your skin a glow similar to the one you get after exercise,” says Justine Hextall, a consultant dermatologist at the Tarrant Street Clinic in West Sussex.
“However, bear in mind that if the water is quite hot and there’s soap in it, you’re more likely to remove natural oils from the skin, leaving the skin drier – so I wouldn’t recommend having a bath every day for that reason.”
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To counterbalance this drying effect, Justine suggests putting oils in your bath instead of bubbles.
“And when you get out of the bath, immediately put on some moisturiser to support the skin’s barrier and replace what may have been lost,” she adds.
“Choose a product that contains shea butter, which is very similar to natural skin oils.”
Three products to supercharge your bathtime
Best for gym buddies
- Westlab Epsom Salt, £4.99 from Hollandandbarrett — buy now
Made from pure magnesium sulfate, Epsom salt is a traditional remedy for sore muscles so enjoy in a post-workout soak[/caption]
Best for good sleep
- Neom Perfect Night’s Sleep Bath Foam, £22 from Cultbeauty — buy now
Neom’s Scent To Sleep range boasts relaxing lavender essential oil as well as soothing coconut and sweet almond oils[/caption]
Best for silky skin
- The Body Shop’s Egyptian Milk & Honey Bath, £15 from The Body Shop — buy now
Inspired by Cleopatra’s milk baths, this scented powder formulation contains milk, honey and oils to soothe and soften[/caption]
Sources: Faith In Nature, Mayo Clinic Proceedings.