(Illustration: James Graham)

What the Office Steam Room Taught Me About Finnish Wellness

Can’t we all use a daily steam at the office?


Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

There’s a steam room tucked away in the back corner of the men’s bathroom at Outside’s offices, a product of a vanished time when the magazine had a fully equipped gym. The latter perk is long gone (it’s a photo studio now), and the tiled enclosure, while still functional, has fallen into disuse. “We used to have an IT guy who used it, but that was years ago,” a colleague told me. “He’d walk down the hall in his robe at midday like he was at a spa.”

I’d always been intrigued by this abandoned luxury. Then, on a gloomy day last winter, I did some research about how to cure my seasonal blues. I was burned out at work, navigating relationship troubles, and weathering the lonely pandemic. I learned that hot-cold therapy—heating your body up, then submerging yourself in cold water soon after—­triggers the release of the so-called happy hormones: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. You can accomplish this in many ways, but a sauna session followed by a cold plunge is the classic pairing. The combination is popular in Finland, where a sauna is central to everyday life, as is the concept of sisu, or confronting tough situations with courage and fortitude.

So I decided to take a cue from the Finns—and that IT guy—and hack my winter doldrums. I fired up the steam room and turned on the cold water in one of the adjacent showers, squirming under the freezing flow for 15 seconds before scurrying back to my warm cocoon. On subsequent days, I increased the time spent in each extreme. After a couple of weeks, I’d solidified a regimen: every weekday at 6 P.M., I’d do three cycles of eight-minute steams interspersed with two-minute showers. It became my favorite part of the day.

Turns out there really are health benefits to this routine. A 2021 study found that sauna bathing can “improve the overall health of individuals serving in a high-stress occupation,” such as firefighters, first responders, and military personnel. In a 2015 study, researchers concluded that one or two sessions per week were linked to a significant decrease in sudden cardiac death, coronary heart disease, and overall mortality. Finally, while inconclusive, there’s evidence that cold exposure encourages cardiovascular health and reduces inflammation.

A few months into my experiment, life got busy and I dropped my ritual. My journey mirrored the routine I’d abandoned: hot and cold, on and off. Then one afternoon I spotted a man with SISU tattooed on his calf. Could it be the same sisu I’d tried to live by, 5,000 miles from Helsinki? “This was my high school cross-country team’s motto,” he said. “To run with guts.”

The next day I fired up the steam room once again. The heat felt restorative, the cold water electric. Was I living like a Finn? Would this make me happy? I didn’t care. I stood embracing the cold, humming a tune as I rinsed.

From January/February 2022 Lead Illustration: James Graham