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Sweating might be good for the mind

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TORONTO, Aug 18, 2003 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- Having a bad day with your co-workers? Feeling the blahs? Maybe you need to sweat out your problems -- with friends or colleagues.

Since ancient times, people have climbed into saunas, sweat lodges or related facilities to endure high heat. Now researchers at Oklahoma State University suggest sweat therapy might be an effective way to improve mental well-being.

"The heat of a sauna or sweat lodge is a dynamic force," researcher Stephen Colmant, a doctoral candidate at the university in Stillwater, told United Press International. "Group sweating has had a central place in societies throughout the world for thousands of years in helping people gain more physical, mental and spiritual health."

Ancient Romans built gigantic structures such as the Diocletian bath, which could accommodate 6,000 people at a time, Colmant said. Archeologists have found Mayan sweat houses dating circa 900 BC.

Evidence of communal sweat lodge ceremonies dates to 400 BC among Native Americans. There are references to group sweating in old Celtic and Teutonic groups, and the practice of group sweating is found associated with the Jewish shvitz and the Islamic hammam. Turkish baths and Russian bania also number among cultural sweat houses and tribes in Africa, Melanesia, Australia, New Guinea and Polynesia also partake in group sweating.

Reporting at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Colmant said he and his colleagues examined the way 24 participants recruited from a college undergraduate class responded to counseling along with group sweat therapy in a sauna that reached 145 degrees Fahrenheit. They compared the subjects with students who received counseling only.

Overall, Colmant said, the participants who underwent sweat therapy reported more relaxation, stress relief and a feeling of accomplishment from sweating it out. Although the number of participants was small, he said the sweating group found the counseling more beneficial than those who just received counseling. The sweaters also characterized their group interactions better than the counseling-only group.

"Near the end of their 40-minute sauna sessions, there was a lot of group interaction in the sweat therapy groups," Colmant said. He suggested the shared ability to endure the heat somehow opened the participants' desire to interact with others who had gone through a similar ordeal. The participants filled out several questionnaires and psychological tests to assess their mental state.

The students attended eight weekly sessions of either sweat therapy or traditional counseling. Those who went into the sauna spent 10 minutes in the heat, then five minutes outside. Overall, each weekly session included four 10-minute periods in the chambers.

Although the participants -- 12 men and 12 women -- were permitted to leave the chamber if they felt ill, Colmant said no one sought relief from the heat prematurely.

"It is difficult to draw any generalities from such a small pilot study," said Maria Newton, assistant professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

"However, this is an interesting study," Newton, a sports psychologist, told UPI. "It does suggest that there is an impact on a person's mental well-being that occurs with physiological changes. Not many studies have looked at this," she added.

"The health benefits of group sweating appear to be a main reason for its popularity," Colmant said, adding researchers have cited healthier-looking skin, deeper sleep, pain relief, muscle relaxation, and arthritis relief as physical benefits of sweating practices.

Colmant said he hoped his preliminary research would prompt more extensive studies of sweat therapy's impact on the psychological needs of individuals.

Copyright 2003 by United Press International.

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