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What are the health benefits of bathing & hydrotherapy?

Bathing is not a new concept and there are many examples of ancient societies investing time and the technology of the day into keeping clean. Think of the Roman bath houses that had perhaps the first ever recorded underfloor heating installations. As far back as 1500 BC the Egyptians began using clay as soap and if we fast forward to today we have an endless array of soaks, soaps, epsom salts and bath bombs. The technology on all fronts has advanced and this includes our understanding of the health benefits of taking a bath.

Researchers have found that when we take a hot bath this passive heating can do all sorts of good for our general health. The heat raises our core body temperature which in turn can have an effect on metabolism. So much so that just soaking in a hot bath will mean you burn more calories than, say, sitting on the couch. So not only can we soak away aches and pains but taking a hot bath has the potential to help us lose weight. Other benefits include improving cardiovascular health and some studies even claim taking a bath can reduce the risk of having a stroke.


  • 1. Health benefits of hydrotherapy

    If youre a fan of Monty Pythons Life of Brian youll know that the Romans did quite a bit for the countries they conquered. As well as the aqueducts, irrigation, medicine, wine and countless other high tech life hacks, they also brought public baths. The often elaborate and beautifully mosaiced bath houses were not only a place to get clean but a place to socialise, do business and catch up with all the gossip from around the empire. They provided both hot and cold baths, massages were available and instead of soap oils were used in the pursuit of cleanliness.

    History and archaeology tell us that it wasnt only the Romans that believed in the benefits of bathing. For millennia humans have been taking baths, heating, cooling, steaming and submerging for a wide variety of reasons. Like the Romans the Egyptians didnt have soap but used clay in its place. It was common for the everyday Egyptian to bathe in the River Nile. The upper classes might have their own bathrooms and it is said that Cleopatra bathed in donkeys milk.

    In Mayan culture the traditional temazcal ceremony features a shaman and offerings to Mayan gods followed by a good long sweat in the house of heat (the literal translation of temazcal). Not only is the profuse perspiration thought to bring purification to the participants bodies but there is also the belief that their spirits are fortified and the ceremony looked upon as a rebirth of the soul.

    Nordic countries have a long history of not only hot bathing but also freezing cold baths. While theres good evidence that cold water submersion can help to reduce inflammation it just doesnt seem as comforting as jumping into a nice warm bath. The innate sense that a good soak in hot water is beneficial to us could explain why there are examples of various forms of hydrotherapy from so many different societies and time periods. In the modern world we dont just have to rely on the fact that it feels like it should be doing some good, we have the scientific knowledge to prove that having a hot bath is good for us.

    There exists a whole arm of scientific study into the benefits of hydrotherapy and how passive heating (i.e. soaking in a warm tub) is good for our health. You might be surprised at the number of ailments and conditions that can be treated in part with hydrotherapy. We know that soaking in the tub can help with sore and aching muscles but did you know that it can also help with regulating metabolism, easing cardiovascular complaints and even aid weight loss? The science at work here is an interplay between the properties of water itself and the heat acting upon our bodies. At temperatures between 36 C to 40 C the heat from the water passes to the body slightly raising our core body temperature. The buoyancy from the water means there is less stress on the body and coupled together heat and water can really make a difference.

  • 2. Can hydrotherapy reduce widespread pain and fatigue?

    Most people would agree that pain is unpleasant. As we all know pain can be caused by many things such as injury or an illness. From hitting your thumb with a hammer to contracting a virus; even overdoing it on a run can cause the dreaded DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). An individuals perception of pain is unique and everyone feels pain in a different way. Some people have a very high tolerance for pain while others do not. Pain can be very useful to us as humans in terms of survival and every day navigation of the world around us. Sometimes though our pain receptors and the pain messages our bodies create can become abnormal. This can lead to conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic pain. There are many medical conditions that might be associated with chronic pain such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. Sometimes the cause of chronic or widespread pain cannot be identified. Not only do sufferers of pain have to deal with it day in and day out but chronic or widespread pain can have knock on effects. These secondary symptoms can include fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, depression and disturbances to sleep.

    Treating pain can be complex and increasingly physicians are looking towards alternative or complementary therapies as well as using medication. Bathing in hot water has been used throughout history to help relieve everyday aches and pains. Anyone whos felt a little stiff after exercising knows that a hot bath can help enormously. Theres a current trend for ice baths too! But just how much can soaking in the hot tub help and can it help with chronic or widespread pain? Theres a wealth of research on the health benefits of hydrotherapy and researchers in Germany have gathered up some of the existing studies and performed a meta-analysis on just how helpful hydrotherapy might be when it comes to pain management.

    Given that pain can be difficult to treat and each patient must be treated on a case by case basis the use of hydrotherapy and its effects are difficult to measure. Through an internet survey of over 2500 people suffering from widespread pain, hydrotherapy was rated as one of the most effective ways to manage pain. The researchers in Germany looked at a number of studies and found that hydrotherapy shows moderate to strong evidence for reducing pain. But what is it about simple hot water that leads to this pain reduction? The researchers state that while the mechanisms of pain relief through hydrotherapy might be unknown it is likely a combination of buoyancy, the heat having an effect on nerves and the fact that soaking in hot water allows our muscles to relax. There could even be effects from being in a more relaxed setting such as dimming the lights and lighting an aromatherapy candle. Whatever the reason, it does seem that soaking in a hot bath can help with pain management when used in conjunction with a wider pain management treatment plan.

  • 3. Is bathing good for your heart?

    Imagine soaking in a hot tub after a long day of work. Want to make it even better? Why not fire up some scented candles to take the experience up a notch? While this might sound quite indulgent you might be interested to know that soaking in your hot tub could have more health benefits than just keeping you clean.

    In todays world with busy schedules and hectic lifestyles, cardiovascular diseases have become quite common. Stress levels are soaring and often a lack of time can lead to unhealthy eating habits. These and other lifestyle factors can affect a persons heart health and the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that cardiovascular disease is now one of the top causes of death globally. Making better lifestyle choices can vastly improve your heart health and as the old adage goes, prevention is better than the cure.

    So where does bathing come in? Well, with heart disease being such a prevalent problem there are entire journals dedicated to researching the medical condition. Research is conducted by universities worldwide and there have been some notable publications from several Japanese institutions and Minia University in Egypt looking specifically at heart health and bathing.

    Results from these and other studies indicate that taking frequent hot baths can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease by a significant degree. How frequent is frequent? One study in the journal Heart states that taking daily (yes daily!) hot baths can lower your risk of heart disease by up to 28% and can lower the risk of having a stroke by up to 26%.

    The mechanisms that lead to these benefits are thought to be related to a rise in our core body temperature from taking a hot bath. Normally when were exposed to heat we can sweat and when that sweat evaporates a cooling effect is produced. When were floating happily in a hot tub the water means our sweat doesnt evaporate and as a result there is no cooling effect. As our core body temperature rises a little theres an increase in heart rate, blood flow and cardiac contractility (a fancy way of saying the muscles of your heart contract more strongly). All of these effects in turn mean that there is a decrease in friction on the walls of the arteries (decreased endothelial shear stress). One of the researchers, Tomohiko Ukai from Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, describes these effects as somewhat similar to the effects of exercise on the cardiovascular system.

    Studies and research continue to explore the potential benefits of bathing on cardiovascular health. The overall indication is that bathing could certainly be an important addition to a healthier lifestyle. Eating well, exercising regularly and dropping bad habits like smoking and drinking are all a part of living healthy and now a long hot soak in the bath can be a part of your wellness activities too. So next time its bath time dont see it as a guilty pleasure, see it as a healthy pleasure!

  • 4. Mental health benefits of hydrotherapy

    Mental health is very important and should be looked after just as we try to look after our physical health. It is common sense that sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day and then transferring to the couch for an evening of TV might not be the best way to look after our physical health. Even just breaking up long periods of sitting with some light exercise can be hugely beneficial to our physical health. The thought of running a marathon might be daunting but some light exercise (doing a few stretches, taking the stairs two at a time instead of the lift) every hour or so can make a difference. The same is true for our mental health and while meditating for 8 hours a day and reaching enlightenment might seem a bit of a push, small incremental changes to how we live can really benefit our mental health.

    When it comes to bathing perhaps the most common form of bathing worldwide is to take a shower. Showers are a great way to keep clean and save time. But what about any other health benefits? There are a number of studies exploring the potential health benefits of hydrotherapy (soaking in a hot tub to you and me). The act of submerging ourselves in hot water can bring numerous benefits to our health such as improving our cardiovascular health, increasing metabolism and even reducing pain. One such study looked at the difference of bathing in a shower versus bathing by submersion in hot water. Both methods of bathing were found to beneficial in terms of mental health but the bathing by submersion showed more postive results.

    So why is bathing or hydrotherapy so good for us? Just the feeling of cleanliness and refreshment can lead to an improvement in mental health. But there are also certain physiological processes at work. Soaking in a hot bath can increase our heart rate and lead to a slight rise in body temperature. This can stimulate metabolism and induce elimination of metabolic waste products from the body leading to a feeling of refreshment. The physical properties of the water (known as hydrostatic pressure) can increase blood flow in our veins and thereby increasing cardiac output. Theres even evidence that regular hot bathing can lead to a strengthening of the immune system. Why not add regular bathing to your routine?

    The study comparing showering and bathing used a number of methods to rate the mental health of participants from simple questionnaires to rating their own smiles in the mirror. Participants compared 2 weeks of showering to 2 weeks of bathing. It should be noted that the study used a relatively small sample size but why not create your own sample size of one and see if a hot bath improves your feeling of well being? Fire up some scented candles, dim the lights and put on some soothing music and who knows, perhaps you could reach enlightenment before the end of your bath?

  • 5. Can bathing burn calories?

    The good news is yes, yes it can. If youre not too keen on pounding the pavement, hitting the gym or getting cross about cross fit, dont worry. A team of researchers at Loughbrough University have shown that taking a bath can help to burn off excess calories. With the water temperature at 40 C (104 F) soaking for an hour could burn up to 130 calories. Thats 80% more than if you were just sitting on the couch and equivalent to a 30 minute walk. This brings a whole new meaning to feeling the burn.

    The team at Loughbrough also found that soaking in the hot tub can reduce pressure in the arteries and may help overall cardio-vascular health. This could help to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

    Lets not forget the potential mental health benefits of destressing in a bubble bath for an hour. Aching muscles will be soothed and the worries and stress of the day can just float away.

    The benefits of bathing dont stop there. The scientists also found that having a hot bath can help to regulate metabolism. This means that if youre not able to exercise for any reason or predisposed to metabolic diseases like diabetes, having regular hot baths could be beneficial.

    Its thought that these beneficial effects are due to the rise in core body temperature when you hop in the hot tub.

    So what does 130 calories look like in terms of food? Heres a list of 5 not so healthy foods similar to 130 calories

    1 hotdog 8.5 tablespoons of ketchup 1.5 scoops of ice cream Half a donut Glass of wine

    This might mean you have to lay off the decadent bathing (who doesnt like a snack and glass of wine in the bath?) but setting up an episode or two of the latest Netflix show could be the perfect way to while away an hour.

    130 calories might not sound like much but if youre looking to lose some extra weight, not to mention all the other benefits above, regular hot baths (or passive heating as scientists call it!) could be just what you need.

    Aside from a 30 minute walk, how else could you burn off 130 calories? Burning 130 calories is roughly equivalent to:

    20 minutes swimming 30 minutes of table tennis 20 minutes of football (so long as youre not in goal) 1 hour of gentle horse riding 15 minutes jogging at an easy pace

    Who knew that taking a bath could be so good for you? Its worth mentioning that taking a bath alone wont solve all your ills. Taking regular hot baths can be used to supplement a healthy diet and regular exercise to maintain your overall health. So theres no need to think of having a long soak as a guilty pleasure - just think of it as a pleasure from now on.

    Soak up the benefits and get in a hot bath now (but maybe skip the bath snacks).