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Study: Heat therapy can mimic vascular benefits of exercise

By Ashtyn Asay - | Nov 17, 2021

Courtesy BYU Photo

BYU exercise sciences professor Jayson Gifford administers heat therapy to a study subject.

A group of Brigham Young University researchers has found that heat therapy can produce some of the same benefits as exercise.

This research centers on mitigating some negative impacts on a person’s arteries that can be incurred during times of physical inactivity.

The researchers utilized a technology called pulsed shortwave diathermy to conduct passive heat therapy, a treatment where radio waves heat the muscles. By using this technology on subjects, researchers found that they were able to dramatically reduce the damage that would have been caused to subjects’ arteries by inactivity.

According to Jayson Gifford, an exercise sciences professor at BYU, this change in the cardiovascular system as a result of inactivity happens when an individual’s cardiovascular muscles reduce function and get smaller, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. The revelation that heat therapy can help to reduce this risk could be especially valuable for elderly individuals, those who have been injured, or those who are otherwise restricted in movement.

For this study, which was recently published in The Journal of Physiology, Gifford and fellow exercise sciences professors Robert Hyldahl and Brad Nelson examined 21 healthy subjects over the course of 10 days of muscle disuse in their lower limbs. They then analyzed endothelial function in the subjects.

“It’s [the endothelium] a very thin layer of cells that dictates the health of your cardiovascular system. When that layer of cells starts to dysfunction, or not work properly, you start to develop cardiovascular disease,” Gifford said. “In our study, we tested the health of the arteries and that layer of cells, the endothelium, before and after people underwent ten days of leg casting.”

All of the participants wore knee braces for the length of the experiment. Half of them received two hours of heat therapy a day, whereas the other half received a placebo.

According to Hyldahl, researchers saw little change in the arteries of the subjects who received heat treatment, but some of the arteries of the young, healthy participants in the placebo group responded in ways they would expect to see in much older individuals with around a 30% decline in arterial health.

According to Gifford, heat therapy can not replace exercise — it can only mitigate the damage caused by lack of movement.

“Exercise does a ton more than what we are seeing with the heat,” Gifford said. “But for people who can’t exercise it’s a good alternative to at least get what you can.”

This team is conducting further research on how alternatives like saunas and hot tubs could be used to mitigate artery damage from lack of movement and how this study could be used to help individuals who are on bed rest or recovering from surgery.

“We hope it has applications for people who are post-surgery, or are immobilized for any reason,” Hyldahl said.


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