Steam room

What the office steam room taught me about Finnish wellness

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There is a steam room tucked away in the back corner of the men’s bathroom at Out’s offices, a product of a bygone era when the magazine had a fully equipped gym. That last perk is long gone (it’s now a photo studio) and the tiled enclosure, while still functional, has fallen into disuse. “We had an IT guy using it, but that was years ago,” a colleague told me. “He was walking down the hall in his midday robe like he was in a spa.”

I have always been intrigued by this abandoned luxury. Then, one gloomy day last winter, I researched how to cure my seasonal blues. I’ve been burnt out at work, had relationship issues, and weathered the pandemic alone. I learned that hot-cold therapy — heating your body, then immersing yourself in cold water shortly afterwards — triggers the release of so-called happiness hormones: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. You can achieve this in a number of ways, but a sauna session followed by a cold dip is the classic pairing. The combination is popular in Finland, where a sauna is central to everyday life, as is the concept of if, or face difficult situations with courage and courage.

So I decided to take inspiration from the Finns – and this IT guy – and hack my winter slump. I turned on the steam room and turned on the cold water in one of the adjacent showers, squirming in the freezing flow for 15 seconds before rushing back to my warm cocoon. The following days, I increased the time spent in each extreme. After a few weeks, I had solidified a regimen: Every weekday at 6 p.m., I did three cycles of eight-minute steams interspersed with two-minute showers. It has become my favorite moment of the day.

Turns out, there really are health benefits to this routine. A 2021 study found that sauna baths can “improve the overall health of people in high-stress occupations,” such as firefighters, first responders, and military personnel. In a 2015 study, researchers concluded that one or two sessions per week were linked to a significant decrease in sudden cardiac death, coronary heart disease, and overall mortality. Finally, although not conclusive, there is some evidence that cold exposure promotes cardiovascular health and reduces inflammation.

A few months into my experience, life got busy and I gave up on my ritual. My journey reflected the routine I had abandoned: hot and cold, on and off. Then one afternoon I spotted a man with SISU tattooed on his calf. Could it be the same sisu I had tried to live 5,000 miles from Helsinki? “That was the motto of my high school cross-country team,” he says. “Running with guts.”

The next day, I turned on the steam room once more. The heat was restorative, the cold water electric. Did I live like a Finn? Would that make me happy? I did not care. I stood, embracing the cold, humming a tune as I rinsed off.