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A tiny room with a perfect view

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A small home sauna.

Global pandemic got you down? Joe Gillivan can’t say enough about the soothing powers of a good home sauna. Increasingly, he’s not alone

When Joe Gillivan squeezes all 6’4” of himself into the one-seater sauna that sits in the corner of his home gym, his world doesn’t shrink. It gets bigger.

“I don’t care if the thing’s only six feet tall,” says the 60-something Halifax leadership coach who makes a living showing Canadian CEOs how to broaden their horizons in a decidedly cramped and self-isolating time. “It’s got mood lighting and Bluetooth. I can listen to music and podcasts. Or, I can meditate… I got what I paid for.” 

Specifically, he got a box with infrared panels that plugs into the wall. Within 30 minutes of flipping a switch, he can watch the temperature inside it rise to about 50°C, and meditate on the fact that his power bill hasn’t budged since he bought it for a sum he prefers not to disclose (but which is, nonetheless, somewhere south of $3,000) a year ago. “It’s so invigorating,” he grins. “More people should do this.”

And more people are. According to industry reports, the global pandemic has pushed sauna sales through the roof. Leading manufacturers of home kits, Clearlight and Sunlighten, report that their worldwide orders have tripled in just eight months. Popularity is growing more slowly in Atlantic Canada, but Gillivan says the Halifax Costco (where he bought his) keeps them on order.

The battle for market share between the newer, leaner, drier infrared varieties and the more traditional, complex, wetter steam systems has prompted advocates of both to make some wild claims about their respective health benefits. Most recently have been those regarding COVID-19. 

In August, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported false advertising from some online wellness gurus who “hype the technology’s healing abilities” (even as the Australian Medical Association routinely debunks the more extreme promotions) as “a dangerous lot of hot air.” Cameron Loy, head of the country’s association of general practitioners, told ABC that drawing a link between saunas and the pandemic is baseless, stating, “Marketing products or services like this has the potential to lull people into a false sense of security and make them less likely to follow proven health advice such as physical distancing and hand washing.”

While it’s not a way to treat a pandemic, the overall healing properties of a good schvitz is a matter of record going back centuries. Taken with a modicum of perspective, Gillivan says it can be a marvellous way to reduce stress, enhance physical fitness and encourage good sleep habits: significant benefits as the first full winter of COVID-19 commences. 

“I’ve got a bicycle in my home gym, which I will ride for 30 minutes,” he says. “Then, I’ll jump in the sauna because it’s a great way to relax the muscles and open up the cardiovascular system. Sometimes, on a winter’s day, I’ll come in from the cold and want to warm up quickly. I’ll just throw the sauna on… I tend to have them in the evening time because I also find they help with sleep patterns… All homes in Finland have saunas. Even apartment complexes there have saunas… I’ve done the research.”

Gillivan, who describes himself as “always an active man,” hadn’t really given much thought to saunas until he heard renowned U.S. health and wellness coach Dan Miller speak at one of the CEO events he organized in Halifax last year. “He’s a small, skinny guy,” he says. “He considers himself a real guru.”

On his website, Miller—who likes to say he plans to die in his sleep
at 113— writes: “After nearly a decade of personal use, research, reading, trial and error and talking with manufacturers around the world, I’ve found the most ideal sauna provides both the light and the heat needed to produce maximum benefit for little human meat-suits like you
and me.”

For Gillivan, that meant infrared though he’s not personally opposed to water and hot rocks. After checking online, he decided on Dynamic’s single-person model. Made in China, but CSA approved and constructed of Canadian hemlock panelling, it seemed simple enough to install. “It was easy,” he says. “Costco delivered it in three boxes. It took my daughter and her husband an hour and 20 minutes to put together. It came with lots of good instructions and a video.”

Single person model by Dynamic

Maintenance hasn’t been a problem either. “Initially, I was a bit worried that it might leak hot air, and I read that sometimes the infrared panels can burn out,” he says. But I haven’t had issues with
any of that.”

Gillivan knows, of course, that affordability, efficiency and ease aren’t the first things people think about when they hear the word sauna. “For me, it’s a piece of luxury; I mean, it is a sauna,” he says. “But it’s a piece of luxury that has given me so many benefits. I’ve been using it an hour a day, five days a week for the last year and it’s been fabulous.”

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