Fitness editor Jen Sinkler asks the experts if saunas can help lose weight, why Achille’s tendons get sore, how many exercise sets and reps to do, and how to deal with lopsided injuries.
Q1: Can spending time in my gym’s wet sauna help me lose weight?
A. The answer is yes, but indirectly, according to Tim Jackson, doctor of physical therapy and functional medicine specialist at the NeuroSensory Center of Charlotte in Huntersville, N.C. You will lose a little weight instantly, but it’s just water weight, he explains, and you’ll regain it when you rehydrate. The true weight-loss benefits are more gradual.
Take the detox factor, for example. “Because your sweat is made from lymphatic fluid, increased sweating allows the body to rid itself of unwanted toxins that may be lodged in the lymphatic system,” says Jackson. “Eliminating heavy metals and other toxins supports your body in burning fat, because those foreign molecules are no longer interfering with your metabolism.”
That’s not the only factor at play, though. The heat also causes the body to raise its metabolic rate as much as 20 percent, which causes the body to burn more calories for up to a few hours afterward. Another potential mechanism for weight loss is the soothing of the sympathetic nervous system. Any modality that helps reduce perceived stress and encourages a meditative state will likely lower cortisol, the nasty stress hormone that, when elevated, leads to fat gain and insulin resistance.
Ultimately, sauna time alone doesn’t amount to a serious weight-loss strategy, says Jackson: “It’s only an adjunct to a primary program of exercise, good nutrition and any necessary supplements.” But if you really like the idea of sitting in a sauna for fat loss, you might consider seeking out a far-infrared sauna, he notes. The heat penetrates more deeply, and research indicates that these saunas can decrease oxidative stress, boost immune function, increase nitric oxide (a vasodilator) and improve exercise capacity. Several case studies show significant reduction in body fat after months of far-infrared-sauna use, says Jackson.
Q2: Whenever I play basketball, my Achilles’ tendons are sore for a few hours afterward.
How worried should I be, and is there anything I can do about it?
A. You should definitely take the soreness seriously. “Injuries to the Achilles’ tendons can range from mild tendinitis to chronic tendon degeneration to even complete tendon rupture,” says Mike Reinold, PT, DPT, CSCS, head physical therapist for the Boston Red Sox and founder of the sports rehab and performance website MikeReinold.com. “You definitely don’t want to work through soreness and get a serious injury.”
The Achilles’ tendons take a lot of stress during activities involving jumping and running, and damage most often occurs with a sudden increase in training intensity, frequency or duration. So, if you’re occasionally hitting the hardwood without properly prepping your body, you’re putting yourself at greater risk of injury.
Frequent exercise and pregame activity can keep your Achilles’ tendons from becoming . . . well, your Achilles’ heel. Specifically, doing calf-raises and other lower-body, weight-bearing lifts will help you avoid the calf weakness and tightness that can predispose you to harm. Gradually increasing how far and fast you run will also help, as will foam rolling and stretching your entire lower body.
But, ultimately, you want to play it safe. “Be sure to stop playing if you feel soreness in your Achilles’ area,” advises Reinold. “If you do experience soreness, ice it afterward to help reduce inflammation in the tendon, and consult a qualified healthcare provider to make sure you don’t have any structural limitations or muscle imbalances that are contributing to your soreness.”
Q3: How many sets and reps should I be doing in my lifting routine?
A. “This is a tricky question because the answer depends on your goals,” says Molly Galbraith, cofounder of the women’s strength movement Girls Gone Strong and co-owner of J&M Strength and Conditioning in Lexington, Ky. Generally speaking, you would do three sets of the following rep schemes based on your end goal:
- For maximal strength: 1–5 reps
- For strength-hypertrophy (a blend of muscle strength and size): 5–8 reps
- For hypertrophy: 8–12 reps
- For hypertrophy-endurance: 12–15 reps
- For endurance: 15+ reps
“Let’s be honest, though — it’s way more complicated than that,” Galbraith says. “You have to take into account exercise selection, experience, strength levels, muscle-fiber type, where the exercise falls in your workout, what your previous training routine looked like, how long you’re resting between sets and so on.” In other words, what works for a beginner is going to be different from what works for a bona fide gym rat. (For more on sets and reps, check out “10 Sets, 10 Reps.”) Galbraith recommends the following guidelines for both your main lifts and the accessory lifts that build stability.
Experience Level: Beginner
Main Lifts: 2–4 sets of 8–12 reps
Accessory Lifts: 2–4 sets of 8–12 reps
Experience Level: Intermediate
Main Lifts: 3–4 sets of 4–6 reps
Accessory Lifts: 2–3 sets of 6–12 reps
Experience Level: Advanced (Goal: Strength)
Main Lifts: 3–5 sets of 1–5 reps
Accessory Lifts: 3–3 sets of 6–12 reps
Experience Level: Advanced (Goal: Hypertrophy)
Main Lifts: 3–5 sets of 5–15+ reps
Accessory Lifts: 3–3 sets of 8–15+ reps
Fitness Fix: Lopsided Injuries
Do many of your injuries occur on one side of your body? There’s often a logical explanation and a simple solution.
As much as we’d like to think we’re symmetrical beings, we aren’t. And if the strength or movement imbalances between our left and right sides are too pronounced, injuries tend to crop up. “Most of the time asymmetry isn’t a problem, but as you increase difficulty with heavier weights or intensity — amping up speed or distance — your body may no longer be able to compensate for the asymmetry, and you begin to feel pain,” says Ann Wendel, MS, PT, founder of Prana Physical Therapy in Alexandria, Va. “If you train through it, you end up with an injury.”
To correct imbalances, you need to address the root of the problem. But that can be tricky: It could be something as simple as always crossing the same leg, slouching to one side when you’re driving or having your computer monitor placed off center. (See “One-Sided Conversation,” below, for suggested solutions to a number of common culprits.)
If you regularly sustain injuries on one side of your body, Wendel recommends you work with a physical therapist, who will be better able to deduce the origin of your injury by taking a big-picture look at you.
“You’ve got to consider not only the current injury, but also past injuries, chronic illnesses, nutrition, stress management, sleep patterns and exercise,” says Wendel.
“When a patient comes to see me with shoulder pain, it would be ineffective to just look at that shoulder, or even both shoulders. I need to look at the spine, hips, feet and the way the patient moves. You can’t treat a joint in isolation.”
It may take no more than a few visits to develop a successful program, she adds. From there, most clients can resolve their lopsided-injury challenges on their own.