What would you say if I told you that making a tiny modification to your normal routine could absolutely change your life?
What would you think if I told you it only took 2 minutes? And that the cost is just about zero if you already have running water?
And what if all you had to do to facilitate that life change was to get cold?
Regularly. On purpose.
Would you do it?
I did. And every day since. And I can honestly say that my life has truly changed for the better.
This article will outline how and why I use cold water therapy, and how you can, too.
People have been getting into very cold water for therapeutic reasons for thousands of years. From the ancient Greek and Roman physicians to the oldest proponents of Chinese medicine, taking a dip in the cold has been prescribed through the ages.
They knew then, or at least suspected, what science is validating now: a lot of good things happen to our bodies when we expose them to cold water regularly.
The claimed benefits of practicing consistent cold water immersion range from fat-burning and battling depression, to curing fever and promoting healthy skin and hair.
In other words, the applications cover an extremely broad range of ailments and prescriptions. And while there is plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence corroborating a few of these claims, there is plenty of BS, too!
Here’s What Happens
When you immerse yourself in cold water or take a cold shower, the shock to your body will immediately cause you to take in lots of oxygen. If the water is extremely cold you will typically hyperventilate for about the first minute or so.
Your blood vessels will then narrow in a process called vasoconstriction, which will prevent blood flow (and heat delivery) to the periphery of your body. This process is meant to preserve core body heat at all costs in order to protect the organs.
After you get out, or warm the body back up, blood rushes back through the vessels creating tremendous feelings of energy and well-being, while shuttling nutrients and waste products along their respective paths.
But What About The Supposed Benefits?
1. While we aren’t exactly sure why, we know that our BAT (brown adipose tissue)--the stuff in your neck and upper torso that generates heat--is only really activated when exposed to cold. This can boost your resting metabolic rate by 25-40% while you are in the shower, which is significant.
How many calories could you burn over the course of a year this way, even if just for short durations?
2. We know that cold exposure has immunostimulating effects that can possibly be improved with exercise. Via a process called hormesis, we can stress our bodies just enough to elicit a positive physiological response. The resulting adaptation means a theoretically stronger immune system.
I hate getting sick. Don’t you?
Wouldn’t it be worth a daily cold shower to avoid being completely bedridden a couple of times a year?
3. And we know that getting into cold water after intense exercise can significantly reduce muscle soreness and prevent loss of performance. If you do any kind of training at all, you can expect a decent amount of relief in DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
How much faster could your recovery be if you didn’t have to deal with debilitating soreness?
We know people have been getting into cold water for many years in order to cure every imaginable ailment with varying levels of success. And now the scientific community has shown practical applications in a few key ways.
But the single most important benefit that I’ve received from this beautiful practice isn’t really quantifiable without an MRI at the moment...
I only had a superficial understanding of the supposed benefits of cold water up until a few years ago. The high schools I attended had tubs for ice baths available for student athletes (mostly American football, if I remember correctly), but I was only vaguely aware of them.
By 2010 I had been focused on powerlifting for a couple of years and was ready to transition to doing a bodybuilding show. However, I still read the training logs of the most respected powerlifters because I was always looking for that training or recovery “edge” that could be universally applied.
Champion powerlifter Vincent Dizenzo outlined his method for using contrast showers for recovery in an intriguing post that year.
The idea is that pushing nutrients and blood in and out of the muscles by way of vasoconstriction and vasodilation (blood vessels expanding) helps the adjoining tissues and tendons heal faster.
I tried it consistently for a while but I just wasn’t seeing any mindblowing changes in my recovery times. Besides, I hated the discomfort more than overcoming it, and eventually I abandoned the practice.
In 2012 I moved to Los Angeles and started getting into the ocean on a regular basis. I wasn’t really changing any other factors in my life, but my appetite was through the roof on the days I got in the cold Pacific.
And I was getting noticeably leaner despite the increased calories.
However, it would take me hours to warm up after getting out, and I would find myself shivering any time the ambient temperature dropped below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. That wasn’t fun.
I realized the cold water was having a significant impact on my body, but I wasn’t quite sure how to measure it and so I stopped paying attention. I dealt with being uncomfortable and cold on a regular basis as a byproduct of enjoying time in the ocean.
By early 2014 I had heard about the incredibly impressive feats of Wim Hof, and the following year I started to experiment with daily cold showers.
I was mostly intrigued by learning whether or not I could condition my body to adapt to the cold like he had, because I was so tired of being uncomfortable unless I was bundled up or standing in the sun.
Snakes In The MRI Machine
While I experienced demonstrable benefits in those aspects that I mentioned, the most important reward in my journey with cold water therapy is something that is linked to a study affectionately known as “Snakes in the MRI Machine.”
It turns out that our “courage muscle” is a part of the brain known as the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC). We know this because this is the part of the brain that lit up in the MRI scan while the subjects in the study performed acts of “courage.”
What’s interesting is that the more the subjects were afraid but did not give in to their fear, the more active their sgACC!
This seems to indicate that if you can overcome some fear every day, if you can get a battle going between your sgACC and your amygdala (responsible for fear) that your sgACC wins, you could theoretically build this courage muscle.
Is this a stretch? Maybe. But the body seems to respond favorably to hormetic stress in most other applications. Thus, my bold assertion:
I have used daily cold showers to systematically improve my discipline, courage, and mental toughness. And so can you.
This is without a doubt the most redeeming aspect of this daily practice for me personally. You may find that nothing else reduces your inflammation like cold showers, or that you’re able to get off antidepressants after a year in the cold water.
Those would be incredibly beneficial aspects of a very simple practice that you simply couldn’t afford not to experiment with. Again, I cannot claim to know what you will experience, but it will be something, and it will only fully reveal itself the longer you expose yourself to it.
At the very least, you can improve your courage, discipline, and mental toughness, without being genetically blessed or having any discernible talent.
And that’s incredible.
Cold Showers Results (18 months)
This is a short list of the most prominent changes I’ve noticed in the last 18 months of taking daily cold showers.
1. Improved discipline and courage
I have developed a decent hierarchy of suffering in order to compare and contrast with any ordeal I am going through, but the consistent hormetic stress that the cold showers provide doesn’t seem to have a substitute.
Every day builds on the next, and now I am almost two years into a daily practice. How much better will I be at making difficult decisions or overcoming my fears after 3 years of this? 5 years? 10?
Time will tell, but I’m willing to bet the farm that it is only doing good things to this part of my brain in the long term.
2. Immediate mental clarity (No more residual morning grogginess)
You can demonstrate this to yourself instantly. This is the one benefit that I think just about everyone can agree on. Nothing has the power to strip away the fog, obliterate (or, at least, alleviate) a hangover, or pump you up for the day like a cold shower.
I have yet to “adapt” or gain any kind of tolerance for this thing at all. Everyday is an absolute shock, and everyday it absolutely works.
3. Improved circulation
Look, I still get cold. My fingers and toes and nose still get really cold if I’m in the ocean for a long time or just run around on a chilly day in nothing but shorts. However, this is actually improving--it has just taken a long time.
The pain in my fingers used to be excruciating, but now it seems that my body has finally adapted to the point that I never notice or talk about it. Could this be undone by a few months in a very warm climate? I don’t know. But as it stands, it is much better than it was before I started.
4. Fewer illnesses over the year
I don’t get sick as much. Even after quitting smoking and cleaning up my diet, I would manage to get sick a couple of times a year with a devastating sinus infection or drastic cold that could linger for up to 10 days.
The past two times I started to get sick was over the course of about 14 months, and it really only lasted a couple of days. Huge improvement.
5. Reduced inflammation of joints
After 22 years of lifting weights in vertical and horizontal planes I had developed some pretty severe tendonosis (chronic tendonitis) in both arms. I first enjoyed some relief after dropping the movements that were exacerbating the pain, but I’ve been able to greatly reduce inflammation all over my body with daily cold showers, even after marathon training sessions.
Beyond that, my own recipe for pain-free joints has been a combination of dropping heavy pulling movements, eating a modified ketogenic diet, and getting cold on a daily basis.
6. Noticeably improved body composition
This is mostly from my diet, it’s true. But I can’t discount the extra calories I’m burning when I get cold.
And now that we understand that this is the only way to activate the brown adipose tissue, I’m sure that it is having an impact--perhaps minor--on my overall level of leanness.
I have done very low carbohydrate diets on many occasions in the past, but I have never achieved my current level of conditioning without much stricter diet and exercise parameters.
7. Very infrequent DOMS and improved recovery
I am well adapted to my training protocol, which means it’s probably time to think about changing it up!
However, I continue to overload my muscles in practical and efficient ways, and as a result I continue to break down and rebuild my muscle tissue like any other physical culture enthusiast. But I don’t get that sore.
Unless I do something bananas, like run ten miles in a stretch with no training, or do a couple hundred dips in a training session, I’m going to be able to train in some form every single day.
How To Implement Cold Showers in Your Life
Are you ready to give it a try? A word of caution. Like I mentioned earlier, if you are fairly lean and have a hard time warming up, you need to finish with a hot shower.
As Jared Tavasolian and Chris Tai Melodista--two disciples of Wim Hof himself--told me, you don’t want to walk around all day “with that cold in your bones.” It’s very uncomfortable and really unnecessary.
Now, if you tend to run a bit hot anyway, you can probably get away without it, but I absolutely have to recommend finishing with hot water. Not only will you get the benefit of flushing blood through your body, but you can start your day feeling fantastic--not shivering.
Whatever method you choose, you have to shower anyway, so no excuses for skipping this!
Following are the parameters that have yielded the greatest results and been the most sustainable for me:
Set shower to coldest setting.
Put your head under the water stream and control your breathing.
When your breathing is controlled, continue with your shower for 2-5 minutes.
Finish with warm water to heat back up.
Have a fantastic day!
Why the ice bath? Aren't you already practicing cold water therapy by virtue of taking cold showers every day?
Yes, you certainly are. However, this is the next level of cold water therapy and can be a huge recovery hack when practiced the right way. Let's assume you push yourself in a training session beyond what you thought you were capable of.
This might induce some high levels of soreness or fatigue that threaten to ruin your plans for the evening or the next day or so.
Enter the ice bath.
While you can try it any time, I appreciate it the most after training and sweating in the sun. And I want to say that it is honestly not as challenging as it seems.
To me it feels amazing, as the flush of blood flow through my body and the tingling sensation on my skin when I get out is wholly unique.
Now the ice bath isn't for everyone, but you should give it a shot a few times to see if you get any benefit from it.
- A tub filled with ice and cold water
- An active sgACC
Get in the ice bath for 5-8 minutes for best results.
Dominate The Inertia
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” --Anais Nin
I’ve found that the sustained practice of minor discomfort and mindfulness builds courage like nothing else. It’s effective precisely because it is minor discomfort and sustainable--this is why I’ve made cold water therapy and meditation practices foundational to my life.
I also think goal setting and achieving has a lot to do with building courage, because I believe in mechanisms that allow for reasonable and consistent progress. When you decide to dominate the inertia on your terms, you are building courage.
It turns out courage is very important: it allows you to be any number of versions of yourself.
Every day that you practice this initially uncomfortable process is a day that you overcome your fear of discomfort. It’s another day that you get to flex and strengthen your courage muscle.
And it’s another day of exercising your opportunity to make a choice that can make you healthier.
So, how’s your courage doing?