By Soji James, CPT, CSCS
Each year across the globe, thousands of people gather at various points and dive headfirst into frigid water. (Others gather to watch the thrill-seekers and shake their head in disbelief.) This phenomenon is known as a polar plunge. People do this for a multitude of reasons. But no matter the impetus, polar plunges are probably one of the most intense experiences that you could initiate. Some people call it crazy, while others call it life-changing.
The benefits of cold exposure are being touted so much that people are taking this typical New Year’s tradition and making it a part of everyday life. They are bringing this larger than life practice right into their own homes. Practitioners such as Wim Hof have popularized cold showers and ice baths as a way to bulletproof the human body. A plethora of research seems to stand behind them as well. As people look for ways to boost their immune system, some ice-cold water may be just what the doctor ordered.
Voluntarily entering into colder temperatures may not seem like fun at all. But in this situation, the ends may justify the means. Scientists have found a plethora of research that shows that humans can benefit from turning down the heat. One study showed that lower home temperatures in the winter were associated with lower waist measurements. In the cold, our bodies activate thermogenesis to generate body heat in brown fat. Brown fat, as opposed to white fat, can burn calories at a high rate. While these effects are linked to longer-term cold exposure, you begin to see just how the cold can be a positive factor when it comes to your wellness.
People who take a polar plunge often talk of feeling invigorated upon hitting the ice-cold water. Submerging yourself in cold water initiates a release of adrenaline as the body’s fight or flight response is initiated. Dopamine floods your brain and produces a feeling of a natural high—hence the feeling of happiness that many polar plungers report. As endorphins are released, the body also experiences an analgesic effect. Meaning that diving into cold water can be a natural pain killer that puts your body into prime rest and repair mode. Unfortunately, sudden immersion in icy cold waters can also present unique dangers. Even good swimmers could potentially drown if muscles become paralyzed due to the frigid temperatures. If you want to play it safe while experiencing some of these same benefits then I recommend trying to implement cold showers and ice baths at home.
Wim Hof is a sixty-year-old Dutchman who is also known as The Iceman. This extreme athlete earned this nickname for a reason. He holds around twenty-six Guinness world records and is recognized for outrageous feats. Hof ran a half marathon barefoot on ice/snow (he takes cold weather running to another level!). He climbed Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts. And he stood in a container covered with ice for 112 minutes. While I don’t expect you to start packing your bags and heading to the nearest arctic mountaintop anytime soon, there are lessons of resiliency and growth mindset to be learned here.
Wim Hof is a huge advocate for the potential of cold exposure to sharpen the mind and body. Cold showers are a vital component of his popularized Wim Hof Method. They are a quick way to rejuvenate the body, strengthen the system, and tackle adversity right in your own home.
Once you can get past the discomfort, cold showers have several benefits. For one, they reduce stress levels. Each battle with the cold stresses the nervous system and builds your tolerance even further. Our body doesn’t discriminate when it comes to stress. So this leaves you with higher mental resolve to deal with many of the other hardships that life may throw at you.
Cold showers wake your body up. This mini-polar plunge can help you feel focused. Cold showers have also been shown to increase the number of white blood cells in your body. (These blood cells protect your body against disease.) One study out of the Netherlands, with 3,000 participants in a thirty-day trial, found something interesting. Participants who finished their daily shower with a thirty- to ninety-second blast of cold water were twenty-nine percent less likely to call out of work for illness than their colleagues who didn’t. And after the trial had ended, two-thirds of the participants who had utilized the method continued because it made them feel so good.
If you aren’t used to the cold exposure, don’t think that minimal time spent won’t have a positive effect. Even ending your warm shower with thirty seconds of a cold rinse can be highly beneficial. While the initial impact is unpleasant, you will get past this stage and soon learn to cherish the experience. I’m a huge fan of journaling for mental health, and being able to look back on my own experience with cold showers is mind-boggling. I started off hating them but fell in love with them when I noticed their impact.
Turning on the cold water will allow you to face fear head-on, proving that you can come out on top in difficult situations. And it doesn’t hurt that the contrast with the warm water will also provide relief for muscle soreness. Breathing and existing amongst this discomfort also has the benefit of activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing feel-good hormones such as norepinephrine and beta-endorphins. These feel-good molecules will naturally leave you feeling “up” as you step out of the shower to tackle the world. If you are looking for a way to feel happy, alert, and rejuvenated, then hop in the shower and give the cold rinse a shot.