The attraction of collective baths: “It’s the first time that I feel really good in my body” | Health & well-being
II float in a communal pool that’s heated to a balmy 34°C and I don’t give a fuck about anything. All the usual stressors like deadlines, bills and traffic jams melt away under the mineral-enriched jets pounding my lower back at Soak Bathhouse on the Gold Coast.
But I vowed to try everything during my 90-minute “dip and sip” session — and that includes the freezing plunge pool. I prepare myself. It’s like diving into Antarctica. Catching my breath, I hurriedly retire to the hammam, where the most discerning bathers breathe in a warm eucalyptus-scented mist.
In this time of contagion, it may seem odd that bathhouses are back, but they are thriving. Despite Delta and Omicron’s best efforts, at least four major new facilities opened in Australia last year, including the one in Queensland To soak, the public bath and Talaroo Hot Springs and that of Melbourne sense of identity. This year, another communal bathroom, also called the public bathopened in Douglas Park, south-west of Sydney.
Operators, including Soak CEO Alexis Dyson, say that after 18 months of wearing masks, avoiding hugs and handshakes and hiding at home, people yearn to be closer to others. “We’re seeing a huge focus on wellness and mental health in general,” she says. “In particular, people feel the need to connect with others.”
Communal baths date back to Neolithic times, when nomadic tribes freed themselves from the constraints of hunting in natural hot springs. This centuries-old tradition finds contemporary expression in many different cultures – think Turkish hammamsJapanese onsen, south korean jjimjilbang and finnish saunas. For many Australians, however, the closest thing to communal bathing is sharing the tub of childhood with a sibling or standing in beachside showers to banish sand and salt. For most, bathing is a solitary, functional activity, often performed under time pressure as we prepare for something more important – a date, a meeting, a day at work.
What if swimming was the main event? The co-founder of Sense of Self in Melbourne, Mary Minas, still remembers the wonder she felt when a 20-year-old walked into a hammam in a Parisian mosque with a French-Tunisian friend. “We did a ritual that she did every week with her mom when she was a kid,” Minas says. It stretched to six hours instead of the one Minas had bet on, and some aspects of it were confronting.
“My friend was like ‘It’s naked’ and I was like ‘Oh shit’.” But seeing unabashed bodies of all shapes and sizes was an eye opener, and Minas was hooked. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is the first time I’ve felt really good about my body,’ after growing up surrounded by food culture.”
Beyond the benefits of relaxation, social connection, and body positivity, research suggests there are other reasons to take the plunge. A study published in the BMJ in 2020, discovered that bathing in the bathtub had preventive effects against cardiovascular disease; other studies have attributed to heat therapy antidepressant effects and reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2020 review published in the Physiology of thermotherapy found that regular bathing in a sauna or hot tub had health benefits comparable to low- or moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, and cycling. However, co-author Charles Steward cautioned couch potatoes against complacency. “Regular saunas or baths are unable to replicate all of the health benefits of physical training, such as promoting fat loss and increasing muscle mass,” he wrote in the conversation.
As someone who wears flip flops at the public pool and around shared campgrounds for fear of getting plantar warts, I wonder what dangers lurk amid the bubbles. According to Edith Cowan University’s environmental health officer, Dr. Edmore Masaka, environments containing water can harbor pathogens such as Legionella and Pseudomonas – opportunistic bacteria that cause illness primarily in people. with underlying health conditions. “Combine that with warmer temperatures and you actually increase the potential for certain types of bacteria to grow,” he says.
However, Masaka points out that the Australian standards that apply to the design of public facilities, as well as the filtration, disinfection and monitoring requirements imposed by state governments and implemented by local authorities, go a long way in controlling disease outbreaks caused by pathogens. He is not aware of any disease outbreak resulting from bathhouses in Australia. Public pools and water parks, on the other hand, have been linked to cryptosporidium and other infections.
Covid transmission is possible in bathhouses, as in any other indoor gathering space, but it is uncertain whether higher humidity changes the risk profile. “No specific research with Covid-19 has determined whether it makes a significant difference compared to other settings,” Masaka says.
Dyson and Minas say they have extensive hygiene protocols. As for finicky people like me who fear warts, we can either wear our own shoes (Soak) or put on a pair of provided flip-flops (Sense of Self). “It’s just to keep everyone safe,” Minas says, adding that changing shoes is also “part of the ritual.”
Minas warns that high temperatures make public baths unsuitable for pregnant women, but most others can partake. As for the reason for doing so, she says, “Even if it takes your mind off your mind for a few moments…it’s a win.”