If you’ve enjoyed a hot tub experience, you know that the relaxation and skin sensorama it induces is benefit enough. It’s also a psychological stress reducer and has healthful impacts on physiology. Lolling in a natural hot spring or a heated large tub or pool has the combined benefits of increasing body temperature and relieving gravity’s usual tug on the skeleton and tissues. Body temperature and heart rate gradually rise, but without also triggering a rise in blood pressure (as exercise does) because blood vessels dilate with the heat. As a result, blood delivery improves, bringing in nutrients and oxygen and taking away toxins from areas that may otherwise suffer sluggish flow. As the body’s natural cooling mechanism kicks in (aka sweating), pores all over the skin release moisture that carries away chemical wastes. Massaging jets of water or air further enhance all this fluid movement, and just plain feel wonderful.
Heating yourself also supports immune cell travel among your tissues and nurtures tissue repair. The combination of warmth and freedom of movement, thanks to the body’s buoyancy in a tub of water, speeds healing from injuries and surgery, improves arthritis symptoms, helps those who are obese or have restricted mobility, reduces the need for pain medication, loosens muscles before a workout or soothes them afterward, and improves sleep.
Note that hot-water soaking is not advised without first checking with a medical expert, or for the very young, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with cardiovascular or other serious illness. The intersection of hot tubs and the use of alcohol, drugs, or medications that cause drowsiness has proven fatal. And though exercising while in a tub may sound like a great workout, doing so can dangerously ratchet up body temperature and stress the heart.
In this country, public heated baths had a big heyday in the 1800s, but today, large venues have mostly given way to smaller resorts with private soaking rooms that offer tubs by the hour or as one of multiple body treatments during a day, weekend, or weeklong retreat. In the Hudson Valley, Saratoga is the destination spot for a natural mineral soak, as it has been for over a century. Roosevelt Baths and Spa is one of several spas in the area that draw from natural mineral springs.
The Roosevelt is a historic bathhouse built in 1935 using New Deal money, thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had earlier taken great interest in the mineral waters’ healing potential. While New York’s governor, Roosevelt had hired an architect to study the spas in Europe as a first step in his vision to create the grandest spa in the world. Renovated and reopened to the public in 2004, Roosevelt Baths and Spa is within a state park and offers 43 private tubs. The 50-degree naturally effervescent mineral water is mixed with a small amount of fresh hotter water (or you can request 100 percent heated mineral water, with advance notice).
Michelle Calzada, director of Roosevelt Baths and Spa, says that the pleasure of a mineral bath is hard to understand until you’ve had one. “Our water, from the Lincoln Spring, has the highest carbonation in Saratoga, and because of the effervescent bubbles, you float. The water has 18 different minerals and trace elements that help different systems of the body.” Soaks are $25 for 40 minutes; afterward, you can have a massage in the same room, or enjoy the steam room. “We have a safe, clean, family-oriented environment in its own little development,” Calzada adds. In addition, the Roosevelt was deemed one of 10 most “green” vacation spots by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation in 2009 for its efforts to save energy, reduce waste, and conserve resources.
Because mineral hot springs occur only where the Earth deems appropriate, not where it’s convenient to busy people, a second best is adding goodies to mimic mineral water, like dry salts from celebrated mineral sources such as the Dead Sea, or to create healing and rejuvenating solutions using plants or oils. For instance, at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, guests to the spa can soak year round in an outdoor heated, jetted pool to which salts from the Dead Sea are added daily. “The minerals are fantastic—magnesium, potassium, calcium chloride, bromides, and many others,” says Mohonk Spa Director Barbara Stirewalt. “They have several significant benefits, and we know that people like it.”
Designer Soaks and Steams
Adding herbs or oils to the water enriches the sensual feast and can include specific healing and rejuvenating concoctions. You can order up a private session in a tub of delights at Mohonk’s spa. “In the winter you lose some serotonin and you need to reenergize yourself with uplifting oils, and a bath is a great way to do that,” says Stirewalt. “Indoors we offer what we call water cures. These are aromatic soaks performed in a circulating jetted hydrotherapy tub, in which extracts or essential oils have been added to the water. They offer relaxation and relief as well as the pleasure of soaking in hot water that’s between 98 and 102 degrees.”
The spa’s Lake in the Sky Water Cure, for instance, combines balsam fir, white pine, pink peppercorn, and green mandarin essences, and the Refresh Water Cure features extracts of oats for skin hydration and bourbon vanilla plus massola bark to ease nervous tension and soften skin. With any soak you can choose accompanying music and afterward enjoy an iced fruit antioxidant beverage of the day.
Steam rooms are a great heating-and-hydrating experience too, though the oft-depicted image of them (peopled by nearly naked, rotund men discussing dangerous business) may be off-putting. Imagine instead the steam experience at Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa, overlooking the Hudson River in Milton.
Allie Rockermann, the spa’s director, says many locals enjoy a day pass at the spa and go between the indoor pool, the sauna, nourishing treatments like a massage or seaweed detox wrap, and the steam room. “We put eucalyptus oil in the steam, which clears out the senses and has great antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties,” Rockermann explains. “The steam room makes you sweat, releasing toxins, and breathing in the steam really helps the eucalyptus get inside the body and help with that.” The steam room and sauna are both at about 110 or 120 degrees, offering a super hot indulgence in winter.
When you soak in water, you’re going to be a sponge for substances dissolved in it. The multilayered barrier that is your skin will deter some materials, but others will make their way through the outer layers of dead cells into the blood vessels of the dermis below. Absorption through the skin has its pros and cons: Beneficial minerals, herbs, or oils may seep in, but so may potentially harmful microbes and chemicals.
Just as swimming pools are treated to remove or destroy microorganisms, hot tubs must be too. Every time somebody steps into the pool, a new supply of microbes is introduced. So chemicals or processes that kill and inhibit the growth of microbes are essential. In addition, the organic material from dirt, skin oils, and those that linger in tap water provide nutrients for growth of algae and bacteria, so a periodic “shock” treatment to oxidize (degrade) these materials is essential. Nonchemical oxidation processes exist but aren’t yet common.
Although chlorine treatment has been standard practice to sanitize and shock water, many health experts advise that chlorine exposure be kept to a minimum, and many people find it drying and itchy. So other approaches to water treatment are evolving. Bromine is a favored substitute for chlorine nowadays (with fewer health concerns so far, anyway), and chemical-free methods can reduce the amount of chlorine or bromine needed (but most do not completely replace them). Such treatments include ozone produced by an ultraviolet light or corona discharge unit, addition of metals such as zinc or copper in minute amounts, and some patented products.
A Tub of Your Own
What about having access to a steamy tub of water at home? In-home hot tubs—more trendily called spas—run from a few thousand dollars to higher priced luxury models. (“Jacuzzi” is a brand name, not a product category.) Spas are beloved for the powerful jets of water or air that act as underwater massagers. Some bathtubs have jets, but there’s nothing like sinking neck-deep into water to get that massage, accompanied perhaps by other spa options such as underwater lighting, waterfalls, sound systems, or a DVD or TV screen. Local spa retailers will do more than provide you the unit: They will help you figure out where to put it, whether you’ll need floor reinforcement, and more.
“We’ll come out and do a site inspection at no charge,” says Kevin Olheiser from Rainbow Pools and Spas in Fishkill. “We’ll recommend where to put the spa, and help you along in the decision-making process. We put in a cement slab if you need one. We teach you how to care for the spa and have a year-round water-testing service. There’s a misconception that caring for a spa is expensive and time consuming. In reality, it takes just minutes a week and costs less than a night at the movies.”
Over the 20 years in business, Rainbow Pools and Spas has settled on one product line: Hot Spring spas. “We are confident with the brand and quality, and they are the most efficient and environmentally friendly spa on the market,” says Olheiser. “Hot Spring has 100 percent no bypass: All water is going through the filter before being returned to the tub. The circulator pump uses less power than a 40-watt bulb. And Hot Spring puts emphasis on the quality and variety of the massaging aspect.” Some other brands offer over a hundred jets, but Olheiser counsels, “when it comes to jets, more being better is not the case. A lot of research has gone into the Hot Spring spas. The jets are designed and positioned very specifically for different parts of the body.” Some units have a lounge chair in which you can recline underwater and receive a full-body jet massage from neck to feet: There are even jets that move up and down your spine.
If you’ve never experienced a hot tub, this winter is a perfect time to be initiated. The Hudson Valley has a number of venues offering a range in services, from a half-hour dunk to a full day or weekend retreat. Some have frequent user clubs, low-cost day passes, or unlimited use with membership (check out YMCAs, universities, and exercise clubs). If you’re thinking about installing a tub at home or workplace (!), you can take a test soak in a Hot Spring tub at Rainbow Pools and Spas, where a private “wet testing” spa awaits you.