Several years ago, I learned about the benefits of cold exposure from some of the big names in the world of health optimization – Tim Ferriss, Ben Greenfield, Dave Asprey, Wim Hof and Tony Robbins to name a few. Not quite ready to bathe in a tub of ice, I started with cold showers. I added shirtless walks during the winter (yes, my neighbors think I’m nuts). Finally, I ventured into the world of the cold plunge – full immersion up to the neck in water ranging from 35-45 degrees. This routine is here to stay…
The impact to my sleep, stress, and physical performance is palpable. The influence on my mindset and outlook on life is radical. More on that later.
Each day starts with a cold rinse in the shower to wake up my system. I typically spend some time in the sauna followed by breathing exercises in preparation for the cold plunge. The temp of the water ranges from 35-45 degrees. I have found my tolerance and benefits to my body to be most effective in this range. My normal session is 3 minutes in the tub. If I have time, I repeat the routine 1-2 more times... 10 minutes in the sauna, 3 minutes in the tub, alternating. Ending with some rest while my body warms up before taking on the world.
Cold exposure is a form hormesis – exposure to bodily stresses in a dose small enough not to cause harm, but enough to encourage a positive response from your body. Other activities like exercise, or heat exposure in a sauna, are a form a hormesis. This is the basic idea of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
The body’s response to “get stronger” from cold exposure has the potential to produce many health benefits, including:
- Boosting your mood
- Reducing inflammation and pain
- Increasing metabolism and regulating blood sugar
- Improving natural immune response
- Enhancing lymphatic and cardiovascular circulation
- Increasing focus
- Improving mental resilience
In my experience, the greatest benefit is the mental component. Not to downplay the physical benefits – muscle soreness from a hard workout, ligament and join pain – spending time in cold water greatly reduces the pain and hastens my recovery. The mental benefits, however, are what keep me coming back. For me, these are noticeable and dramatic.
The easiest way to say it is: “I feel like a million bucks” for hours after a plunge. I’m happier, more attentive, more productive, and just plain more enjoyable to be around (ask my wife).
Additionally, the process of inviting this challenging stress into my life has made responding to uninvited stress easier to manage. The key to this is:
View the cold not as an enemy to fight against, but as an ally and friend to help you be a better, more resilient human. Submit, relax, and let your body do what it was made to do.
By voluntarily leaving your comfort zone, you will grow psychologically and physically stronger. This isn’t just a feeling, there is solid science supporting this experience. For example, research shows that cold exposure increases the production of norepinephrine up to 5x normal levels. (1) (2) Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that mediates mood, attention and other cognitive capacities.
Breathwork is Key
Cold plungers of all levels benefit from some form of breathwork practice before and during the plunge. There are numerous ways to approach breathwork, but here is what works for me:
Prior to the plunge, I take 30 quick and deep breaths in and out – simulating the breathing during a run. This primes my sympathetic system for the cold to be less of a shock. After a few seconds regular breathing and clearing my head, I step into the tub.
During the plunge, I breathe in a cadence of 1:2 breathing in to out. Usually, it’s 3-4 seconds in through the nose and 6-8 seconds out through the mouth. This approach invites the parasympathetic system to take over – acceptance versus struggle.
This Sounds Hard… When Does it Get Easier?
I get this question a lot. From people at all stages of exposure to cold therapy.
When does it get easier? It doesn’t. Your mind gets stronger.
This isn’t about your skin learning that cold doesn’t hurt. Or your nervous system evolving its automatic response to stress. This is about the progression of mindfulness – a quality we all possess, but don’t all know how to fully access. As we learn how to be present in the cold, we transform our state of being – from a mind that is controlled by the body, to a body that is controlled by the mind.
Our ability to control the body through extreme temperature conditions generates a positive resonance through every aspect of life. We learn how to respond to stressful events, without getting overwhelmed, empowered with a new sense of awareness and perspective.
To quote Wim Hof, “if we always choose comfort, we never learn the deepest capabilities of our mind or body.”
Here’s your opportunity.