The science of health and longevity in three spa treatments

Some people think of a visit to the spa as a superfluous and dispensable expense. A luxury. It’s nice but you don’t need it.

Increasingly, however, research suggests that treatments available in spas can not only help to increase wellbeing, they may also significantly improve health and longevity.

Here, we present to you, the science of health, happiness, and a longer life in three spa treatments.

Massage, how can anyone live without it?

Decreases stress, cortisol, and pain. Increases immune function and production of serotonin and dopamine

A review of research conducted in 2004 found that massage can significantly lower cortisol levels and increase production of serotonin and dopamine.

The researchers reviewed studies on depression, pain, auto-immune conditions (including asthma and chronic fatigue), immune system conditions (including HIV and breast cancer), and stress. They found that massage lowered cortisol by a significant average of 31%.  They also found that the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine increased by an average of 28% and 31%, respectively.

While cortisol is required for the function of all sort of systems, too much of it is associated with a variety of health issues, including Cushing’s Disease, which is in turn associated with osteoporosis, muscle weakness, high blood pressure, weight gain, and more. Serotonin, meanwhile, is believed to help regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. Low levels are associated with depression, anger, OCD, and anxiety. And dopamine deficiency is the primary cause of Parkinson’s disease.

The researchers wrote: “These studies combined suggest the stress-alleviating effects (decreased cortisol) and the activating effects (increased serotonin and dopamine) of massage therapy on a variety of medical conditions and stressful experiences.”

And since chronic stress is associated with mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, and personality disorders; cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke; and obesity; among other things, these findings suggest that massage can have a significant impact on quality of life, health, and longevity.

Also, research conducted by Tiffany Field at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami has found that massage may improve immune function in breast cancer and leukemia patients.

Saunas will save your life – and cognitive function

Associated with lowered risk of dementia, hypertension and cardiac disease, and lowered risk of all-cause mortality

In 2015 researchers from the University of Eastern Finland found that frequent sauna bathing was associate with lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke, as well as all-cause mortality. The study tracked 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years, categorizing the men into groups according to how often they used a sauna each week.

“Over the course of the study, 49% of men who went to a sauna once a week died, compared with 38% of those who went two to three times a week and just 31% of those who went four to seven times a week.”

The same researchers also found that the most frequent sauna bathers had a significantly lower risk of developing dementia-related illnesses than less frequent bathers. Men who went to the sauna four to seven times a week were 66% less likely to be diagnosed with dementia, and 65% less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, than those taking a sauna once a week. Furthermore, those who regularly visited saunas were almost 30% less likely to develop pneumonia, while taking a sauna four times a week cut the risk by 40%.

The same research has yet to be conducted on women. Still, saunas seem to be pretty much magical.

Bathing. Soaking in the tub isn’t just relaxing. It might make you live longer

Decreases inflammation, burns calories, may help regulate blood sugar

This continues on the study of “passive heating,” meaning heat from an external source rather than from exercise.

A study that recently made international headlines found that taking a hot bath improves health and can burn calories.

Researchers at Loughborough University investigated the effect of a hot bath on blood sugar control (an important measure of metabolic fitness) and on energy expended (number of calories burned). For the study, they recruited 14 men and divided them into groups to either soak for an hour in a hot bath (40˚C) or cycle for an hour. The activities were designed to cause a 1˚C rise in core body temperature over the course of the hour.

After measuring calories burned in each session, and blood sugar for 24 hours after each trial, they found that, while cycling burned more calories than the bath, bathing resulted in about as many calories being burned as a half-hour walk (around 140 calories). The overall blood sugar response to both conditions was similar, “but peak blood sugar after eating was about 10% lower when participants took a hot bath compared with when they exercised.”

They also found changes to the inflammatory response similar to that following exercise.

“The anti-inflammatory response to exercise is important as it helps to protect us against infection and illness, but chronic inflammation is associated with a reduced ability to fight off diseases. This suggests that repeated passive heating may contribute to reducing chronic inflammation, which is often present with long-term diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.”

Recent findings of separate research has also suggested that, though we have long cautioned pregnant women to avoid hot bath and saunas, they may not present a risk after all. More research needs to be done, however, to confirm those findings before pregnant women should start soaking up the heat.

So many health benefits. So many reasons to head to the spa. And the world might be catching on.

In August 2018, ISPA released its annual findings of spa industry financial indicators, reporting that the number of spa visits in the US had increased from an estimated 184 million in 2016 to 187 million in 2017.



Subscribe to Spa Executive’s newsletter to get Spa Executive’s report on Spa & Wellness trends to watch, 2019-2021 with comments from some of our favourite industry experts, including Marc Cohen, and Jeremy McCarthy. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter and get your download.

Spa Executive magazine is published by Book4Time, the world’s most innovative spa, salon, wellness, and activity management software. Learn more at

This article was originally published in April, 2018