In the wake of a recent gym steam room death, we investigated the risk factors associated with the popular post-workout practice
You just finished the most intense spin class of your life, and it's time to relax and give your muscles a little TLC. You head straight for the steam room, because that's why it's there, right? It slows down your breathing, loosens your tight muscles—oh, and dehydrates you like mad.
Back in March, a woman in Littleton, CO died inside a steam room, and now reports show that she succumbed to acute renal failure due to dehydration. There are extreme circumstances at play here: Her body went undiscovered in the room overnight, and it's unclear what different outcome there may have been had the gym followed protocol and been checking the space regularly (especially before closing); plus, the woman was 77 years old. But, while this age bracket puts her at higher risk to be using a steam room, that doesn't mean that a healthy, fit, younger person is exempt from the risk.
"The advantages of a steam room are all of the things that go with warming up. The heat gets your blood flowing and dilates your blood vessels, enhancing circulation to the muscles," says Daniel Vigil, M.D., an associate professor of health sciences at UCLA and team physician for the UCLA Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. "The dangers are that once all those blood vessels are dilated, you must have adequate blood flow to the body and adequate blood pressure. When your blood pressure suffers, you can faint."
The key is that steam rooms are intended to get the blood pumping before you work out, not as a relaxation post-sweat sesh. "After a workout, the body tends to be dehydrated from all the sweating," says Vigil. "To expose your body to more heat leads to more sweating, more dehydration, more complications to your blood pressure." He points out that the Littleton woman died of renal (AKA kidney) failure, which is a type of profound dehydration. "If you're already dehydrated before the steam room, you're putting a strain on your internal organs," Vigil adds.
Step one for steam room safety—and all safety, for that matter—is to drink plenty of water. Step two is to think about using the warm room to loosen up stiff or sore muscles before your workout, not after. And the third is to keep checking in with yourself any and every time you're stepping into the steam.
"You have to go in with a general sense of well-being," Vigil explains. "If you're feeling really good about your exercise, feeling strong, then you're okay. But if you're just not feeing well, or feeling lethargic, weak, wobbly, disoriented, or faint, you're getting into pretty bad trouble."
It's certainly not helping your body to push it through a steam session. The second it starts to feel unpleasant, just step out and hightail it to your water bottle. After all, keeping your blood pumping is just a bit more important than breathing in that cloud of eucalyptus-lavender-woodsy air.