Smiley face drawn over condensated glass
Science led Jeremy Rellosa to a mildewy steam room and a very cold shower. (Photo: billyfoto/iStock/Getty)
Adventures in Audio

A Man, a Plan, a Steam Room

Smiley face drawn over condensated glass

Outside reviews editor Jeremy Rellosa needed something—anything—to cure his winter COVID blues. Then he remembered the rather dank steam room in the magazine’s office, which had briefly become a sanctuary for him before the pandemic. Digging into research on heat therapies, he learned that the popular Finnish wellness routine of going back and forth between hot and cold could dispel seasonal depression. Thus began a purposely discomforting journey, one that offers lessons for all of us on how to build fortitude, resilience, and even happiness in dark times.


This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Tracksmith, maker of high-performance products for amateur athletes striving to be their best. Learn more about its No Days Off collection, designed for winter training, at tracksmith.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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[Episode Begins]

Jeremy Rellosa: When I pitched this story to you, what made you want to assign it?

Abigail Barronian: I thought it was so funny that you were using the steam room. The steam room is like the strangest, like most mildewy, like fluorescently lit spot and I loved that it had become sort of a sanctuary for you.

Maren Larsen (host): So... that's a couple of my colleagues talking about... well, about work.

You see, at the start of every new year, Outside Magazine publishes a collection of stories that, internally at least, we call a lab rat package. This is because it requires that staffers test out trending health and fitness and lifestyle routines to see what they really do for us.... meaning, we are the lab rats. As you might guess, this has resulted in some questionable assignments.

For 2022, the theme of our package was balance. At a moment when everybody is feeling burnt out, we wanted to help our readers find ways to struggle less and to live more. Somehow, that ended up with me trying out the #vanlife for ten days, recording and editing podcast episodes inside a 50-square-foot Sprinter Van. It was mostly awesome... until a midnight windstorm outside of Leadville, Colorado, shattered a back window.

And then there's the assignment that we gave to reviews editor Jeremy Rellosa. Like a lot of people, Jeremy gets the blues during the winter.... and he wanted to develop a habit that would brighten his days. And did he ever.

For today's episode, Jeremy's going to share what he's learned about a practice that has made him a lot happier, even if it sometimes makes things a little awkward for those of us who work with him.

Rellosa: So, the Outside Magazine office in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has these spaces that many people who work here don't even know about.

On the first floor, tucked into the corners of the men's and women's locker rooms, hidden behind frosted glass doors, are two steam rooms.

Nobody ever uses them because, well, they're kind of gross. They date to the 1990s, when Outside's founder built the office, and they've never been updated. Think: small, tiled rooms that smell like a wet swimsuit you left in the bottom of the laundry basket.

To be honest, I find it strange that steam rooms were included in the design for a magazine headquarters. I mean, I like to think that 25 years ago, an executive imagined that, someday, an editor would make steaming the focal point of a story. But it's more likely that, in the midst of a 1990s wellness craze, they figured it was a luxurious amenity that would make our workplace feel classy and hip.

I'm not sure that ever happened, though. When I first started working for Outside, I heard stories of an IT guy who steamed regularly, walking down the hallway in a bathrobe like he was at a spa. That sounded pretty cool. And also weird.

I had my first experience in the steam room in the spring of 2019, when an editorial fellow named Ruben Kimmelman dragged me from my desk one day. He insisted that we had to see if the thing even worked. We stepped inside the glass door, pressed a big button that says STEAM, heard a faint hiss... and then we freaked out and turned it off, afraid that we'd just released toxic gas into the men's bathroom.

But when we asked our building manager about the old steam room, he assured us it worked perfectly fine. So the next day, Ruben and I brought our swimming trunks to the office, and that afternoon, we had our inaugural session. It was moist, loud... and not warm at all. I stayed in there for about 5 minutes, then told Ruben, "I don’t like this,” and I left.

An hour later, he came by my office. “Yo,” he said. “That thing gets HOT.”

He wasn't kidding. And pretty much right away, Ruben and I had a new obsession. This surprised many of our colleagues.

Rellosa: When did you learn that we had a steam room at the office?

Barronian: I think I learned that we had a steam room at the office. When you made a “men of outside steam” slack channel. Um, and it became sort of a joke, like largely, largely, uh, I don't know, manufactured or given energy by you.

Rellosa: They laughed, but the Men of Outside Steam... it was real.

Well, on Slack at least.

Every guy at the office joined our group chat. Abbie Barronian, my editor, who you just heard, referred to it as the “Outside Frat.” We sent steam memes to each other, and joked about taking calls and doing work in the special tiled office. There was a lively discussion about ordering matching robes with our initials embroidered on them.

And then I went for it: I scheduled a bonafide meet-up in the steam room. I told the guys to bring their trunks, and did a few test runs of the creaky operations. Ruben was right: it did get HOT... though it took 30 minutes to get there.

On the day of the gathering, I did my best to clean the room up and tried to get rid of the mildewy smell. And then I turned on the juice and sat down to wait.

Truthfully, I was nervous that nobody would show up. I had flashbacks to my 7th birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese, when I spent the first hour staring at that creepy animatronic band that plays in the back.

But soon enough, the editors started filing in. The door opened every 30 seconds. It was like a Seinfeld episode, when the cast keeps bursting into Jerry's apartment. And it was glorious. I took a hazy selfie of the first-ever Men of Outside Steam session, and sent it to Abbie. Naturally, she was inspired... and organized a similar gathering in the women’s steam room. 

Barronian: with like nine other women editors And we were all in there in our swimsuits and had Prosecco after work one day and hung out in the steam room. So that was the first experience I had with the women's team or at least.

Rellosa: Right. Um, is there any reason why you haven't used it again?

Barronian: Um, you know, I have thought about it largely like being alone in this building creeps me out cause it's big and dark and I don't feel totally comfortable using mid Workday. So I think, I feel like my options are like, make one of my roommates come and steam with me or make one of our coworkers come steam with me or be alone in a big building.

Right. I mean, aesthetically. The experience is not exactly what I would hope for out of a spa. Um, but maybe I'm too picky.

Rellosa: I am not picky. And in early 2020, I was getting my steamy office groove on regularly... and then... the pandemic hit. I printed out a sign, declaring a two-week pause of the Men of Outside Steam club meet ups. Of course, it lasted much longer than that. After we all started working at home, our slack channel died down... and the steam room fell largely out of collective memory.

But then, last winter, steam came back into my life. And this time, there was a twist that made a huge difference.

I was having a gloomy January, burnt out by work and lonely due to all the social distancing. I started looking into cures for the blues and found research suggesting that getting really hot is good for us. One study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that sauna bathing can improve the overall health of people in a high-stress occupations. As a human living through a global pandemic, that was me.

But here's the twist: there's also research suggesting that cold therapy can alleviate some symptoms of depression.

And actually, what might just be the best solution for someone feeling the seasonal blues is going back and forth between hot and cold. This combination, I learned, is very popular in Finland, which, as you might have heard, was ranked the happiest country in the world, according to the 2021 World Happiness Report.

So, I called up a Finn for some advice.

Katja Pantzar: I actually went for a dip before we started this, uh, conversation.

Rellosa: This is Katja Pantzar. She's a Helsinki-based wellness researcher and author of The Finnish Way. The dip she's taking about? It's in ice-cold sea water.

Pantzar: I had also gone for a dip in the morning but by the late afternoon I was feeling sluggish and I probably had a few too many cups of coffee and then had been working on something that was not going, as well as I had hoped. So I actually went out, walked down to the winter swimming spot and, and went into the water. And then I had a sauna and got rid of, uh, feeling really tired. and Stressed and a whole bunch of other things

Rellosa: Katja says the hot-cold combo triggers the release of these things called “happy hormones" in your brain: things like endorphins and dopamine and serotonin.

But she emphasizes that there's more going on here than brain chemistry. The whole awful-sounding notion of plunging into cold water is part of the Finnish concept of sisu.

Pantzar: Sisu is essentially a unique form of Finnish fortitude in the face of challenges, big or small. So literally everything from, you know, the daily grind, uh, how do you keep everything in balance and make time to do things like get outside and maintain your mental and physical wellbeing. But it also looks at the big picture issues, how we can better take care of each other and the planet.

Rellosa: The idea here is that mustering the gumption to voluntarily freeze your ass for a few minutes makes you stronger -- and more willing to face whatever challenge you might be up against.

Pantzar: you don't need to run a marathon or win a war. It could be something as simple. getting yourself off the couch from, you know, in front of Netflix with your bag of potato chips or whatever, and going outside, doing something, meeting friends, talking to somebody, you're doing something with your situation instead of sitting around and going, oh gosh, it's dark and it's cold. And I wish I was on a beach with a cocktail. it's like, no, let's turn this around. Let's look for a solution. Let's let's work with this and enjoy and embrace the elements and the weather. And the situation

Rellosa: So that was it. I needed to go back to Outside's empty, somewhat creepy office locker room... and sisu up.

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Rellosa: My early attempts at finding my sisu did not go well.

Since there was no cold plunge in the Outside offices, I made do with the cold shower in the locker room. Katja kindly let me know that this doesn't have quite the same impact as truly immersing yourself in cold water, like they do in Finland.

Pantzar: When it's really cold like it is now, it's about minus seven degrees Celsius, we go for a swim outside in the sea or in a lake. We cut away a hole in the ice so that we can swim. And you know, you come out of the water and you feel totally refreshed. You have, what's called swimmer's high,

99% of the people who come out of the water are just like, Ugh. you know, can't even remember what I was stressed about before I went in.

Rellosa: That's great for the Finns. But for me, living in the high desert of New Mexico, a cold shower seemed like enough. Especially because, at first, I couldn't last more than 15 seconds before scurrying back to the steam room.

But I kept at it, and with good reason. Besides the mental health benefits of hot-cold therapy, research suggests it might actually help me live longer. One study, in 2015, found that just a few sauna sessions a week was linked to a significant decrease in sudden cardiac death, coronary heart disease, and overall mortality rates. There's also evidence that cold exposure can encourage cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation.

After a couple of weeks of effort, I’d solidified a routine. Every weekday after work at around 6 p.m., I’d alternate eight-minutes in the steam room, followed by two grueling minutes in the shower. This ritual became my favorite part of my day. I would bike home afterwards feeling energized and accomplished.

Since few of my co-workers were coming into our office at all last year, I often had the entire building to myself. But... not always.

Rellosa: Can you tell me about the time where you came into the office? A little after hours?

Barronian: Oh my God. Okay. Okay. The story goes... I came in one evening, probably like six or 7:00 PM to pick up a package, which like that means the office is closed. Lights are off whatever, um, mid pandemic. And which means that nobody has really been in here period. To walk to the package pickup, I'd walk past the men's bathroom and there's like one lone light on, in the men's bathroom. And I don't even think there was a car in the parking lot. So it was like, what the hell? And I hear music going and can like smell of the steam coming out. And it was just you alone in the office, mid pandemic at like 7:00 PM, steaming and like jamming.

Rellosa: And then, like all healthy habits, my steaming practice began to fade. After I took a road trip in March, I came back to a pile of deadlines. I was working long hours and just didn't feel like spending another half hour going between icy showers and a dank stream room.

I had lost my sisu.

Ironically, what helped me get back... was more work. Editors were asked to submit ideas for our annual lab rat package and I suggested hot-cold therapy. I was given the assignment, so I didn't have a choice.

Still, I knew I need to adjust my approach if I was gonna stick with it this time. Once again, I looked to the Finns for guidance. Helsinki-based wellness researcher Katja Pantzar told me that while her countrymen built up their sisu through hot-cold treatments, one of the best parts of it all was the community building. Finns frequently take their frigid swims and sweaty saunas together. She herself often takes her dips in the sea with other members of her swimming club.

Pantzar: We actually have 500 members and I think about 300 on the waiting list. right now, winter swimming is enjoying a huge boom in Finland. It became a wonderful thing to do during the pandemic when so many gyms and yoga studios and other kinds of places closed .

Rellosa: As Katja explains it, there are benefits to communal treatments that go beyond the existing research on cold plunges and steam rooms and saunas.

Pantzar: There are certain things that are measurable, you know, scientifically, but almost every researcher, every professor that I've spoken with has said, you know, the big challenges we cannot scientifically measure, you know, human contact, what it means to talk to somebody or spill your beans about something that's really bothering you and get some support.

Rellosa: That sounded just right to me. Because while I missed the treatments, what I was really yearning for.... was the Men of Outside Steam.

Evan Grainger: My name is Evan Granger. I'm a video producer at outside magazine in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Rellosa: My coworker Evan hadn't actually been part of the initial Men of Outside Steam group, because he joined the team during the pandemic.

Grainger: personally I'd always been a fan of the dry sauna .I wasn't really sold on the concept of the steam. I didn't think it was hot enough, I didn't think it was like painful enough

Rellosa: But of course, the Outside steam room had a big advantage: it was free.

Grainger: And so the first, like proper steam, I got in there and it kicked my ass and it felt so good. And we came out rejuvenated. Our skin was glowing. And that was sort of the Genesis of our steam room escapades.

Rellosa: Through the summer and fall we had a consistent hot-cold thing going. It was easier to be accountable for a routine with a partner. And we did more than develop our sisu: we would decompress about our work days, and have thoughtful conversations about stuff we were dealing with in our lives. It felt great. As the dark days of December and January approached, I wasn't really worried about getting the blues. I was coming into the winter with a full head of... well, you know.

The first part of the routine is always showering off. I think that it, it helps if you are sort of moist before you even go into it. so yeah, shower off, you stretch out, cue of a playlist. , we've been, we've been going with some sort of, you know, smoky, jazz Spotify playlist recently.

Of course, Omicron has messed things up for a bit. But that's ok. After two years of the pandemic, and a whole lot of cold showers and hot steams, my sisu is strong. I can handle it.

Honestly, I'm excited for the future of those dank, tiled rooms at our office. After I turned my lab rat assignment into Abbie, we even talked about a bold new idea. Forget the Men of Outside steam. When it's safe to go back into the locker room together again, we'll be the Humans of Outside Steam.

Barronian: I'm in. I'll bring the prosecco. Cool.

Rellosa: Thanks Abby. You're welcome. Cool.

Larsen: You can read Jeremy's essay about his attempt to be as happy as a Finn in the Jan/Feb 2022 print issue of Outside magazine. And the best way to get a copy is to become an Outside Plus member, which also gives you access to all our digital content, including exclusive videos, stories from our many sister publications, and exclusive deals on outdoor gear and adventure travel. Go to outsideonline.com/podplus and enter the code pod25 at checkout for a 25% discount if you’re a new member.

Katja Pantzar's next book, Everyday Sisu, comes out from Penguin Random House this March. This episode was written by Jeremy Rellosa and edited by Michael Roberts and me, Maren Larsen. I produced this episode. Original music by Robbie Carver. Thanks to Joshua Rouah at Kizmit Music in Brooklyn for recording Jeremy.

This episode was brought to you by Tracksmith, a proudly independent running brand that makes high-performance products for amateur athletes striving to be their best. Check out the No Days Off Collection at Tracksmith.com.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.