Hot water healing is nothing new. As early as 2,000 B.C., Egyptians used hot baths to ease pain and invoke relaxation by placing sizzling rocks into water. In Ancient Greece, elaborate structures were built around natural hot springs as early-day hospitals and meeting places; there, the father of medicine himself—Hippocrates—prescribed these soothing soaks as treatment for conditions ranging from jaundice to rheumatism. In fact, the word spa comes from the Latin term sanus per aquam–meaning health through water–coined because battle-weary Roman soldiers routinely used hot wells to recover from their physical and emotional wounds.
Fountains of Youth
In addition to helping you live better, water treatment may help you live longer. Research by Joel M. Stager, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at the University of Indiana who has studied the therapeutic effects of water for 30 years, suggests that regular swimming can slow aging as much as 20 percent in some people by maintaining or improving respiration, muscle mass and cardiovascular function. While Stager, who is also editor of The Journal of Swimming Research and a former national swimming champion, has focused much of his study on competitive swimmers, he believes that some benefits trickle down in activities, such as a regular afternoon dip in the pool or frequent hot tub soaks.
Just sitting in hot water up to your neck aids cardiovascular health, adds Bruce E. Becker, M.D., clinical professor of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington.
“The ultimate purpose of the heart as an organ is to pump blood in response to a physiological demand so its best measure of performance is volume of blood pumped per unit of time,” says Dr. Becker. “Immediately after a person is immersed, water begins to exert pressure on the body. Cardiac volume increases by nearly one-third with immersion to the neck.” Simply put, this means your heart gets a cardiovascular workout just from sitting in a hot tub; this does not occur being sedentary when dry.
And because water provides more resistance than air—making movement more challenging—even the most basic water workout can strengthen the heart and muscles better than a similar routine on land. Exercising in water also helps prevent overheating and does not impact joints.
Arthritis relief. ”The soothing warmth and buoyancy of warm water makes it a safe, ideal environment for relieving arthritis pain and stiffness,” notes the Arthritis Foundation.
“Immersing in warm water raises your body temperature, causing your blood vessels to dilate and increasing circulation.” This results in less swelling and pain, and increases mobility—a clear benefit for the one in five Americans with arthritis. In fact, soaking in a hot tub may provide gain without pain. A study by Australian researchers, published by the Arthritis Foundation in June 2007, reports “significant improvements in pain and function” in patients with knee and hip osteoarthritis—the most common types—who underwent one-hour, twice-weekly hot tub treatments for 12 weeks. Interestingly, the researchers say that the improvements from hot tubbing were similar to those seen in other older OA patients they tracked who practiced a similarly timed regimen of tai chi, the ancient Chinese martial art often recommended to improve flexibility and movement.
Pain control. There is good reason why hot tubs are routinely used by physical therapists and pain management experts for everything from minor aches to recovery from serious injury: hot water stimulates the release of endorphins, naturally occurring chemicals in the brain that kill pain and improve mood. A soak after a day of skiing or other exercise also has medical credence: the improved blood flow resulting from hot water immersion means that oxygen and nutrients can more quickly and effectively remove pain-causing lactic acid that accumulates in muscles during intense workouts. In addition, the massaging effect of jetted water soothes and reinvigorates overused and weary muscles—without the expense of a masseuse or therapist.
Lower blood pressure. In one noted study, Mayo Clinic researcher Thomas G. Allison, M.P.H, Ph.D., did a head-to-head benefits comparison of hot tubbing and bicycling in patients at risk for heart disease. His finding: soaking in warm water helped lower blood pressure, whereas bicycling raised it-sometimes to dangerous levels (during exercise). Yet, his study shows that hot water- soaking raised the heart rate—the purpose of aerobic exercise—to similar levels as a bicycling workout. This suggests that a spa soak might provide a noticeable heart-smart cardiovascular workout without the effort, traffic and sweat.
Diabetes improvement and weight loss. Another small, but intriguing study, published several years ago in The New England Journal of Medicine, suggests another way that hot tub soaks simulate the beneficial effects of exercise. After tracking patients with Type 2 diabetes, researcher Phillip L. Hooper, M.D., of McKee Medical Center in Loveland, Colorado, found that participants who soaked in a spa for 30 minutes a day, six days a week, lost nearly four pounds after three weeks-without making anychanges to their diet, exercise habits or other lifestyle factors. What’s more, following tub treatments, patients experienced reduced blood sugar levels; their blood glucose levels dropped, on average, from 182 mg/dl to 159 mg/dl and their A1c levels dipped from 11.3 to 10.3. The patients also reported improved sleep and an increased general sense of well-being. Once again, the improved blood flow from hot water soaks gets the credit, theorizes Dr. Hooper.
“Hydrotherapy can provide relaxation and symptom relief from a variety of ailments,” notes the American Cancer Society. “The ability to promote relaxation in its many forms is well established.”
This is especially important for cancer patients, since the National Cancer Institute says that nearly half of all cancer patients report having some anxiety, and 23 percent have high levels. Significance: some researchers speculate that hormones, such as cortisol released during periods of stress, may activate cancer cells causing them to grow and multiply. Already, medical studies show that these stress hormones play a direct role in the development of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other conditions.
The bottom line: a nice, hot soak is relaxing, soothing, and the perfect way to unwind and better manage stress…if not also to improve your physical health.