Ice Baths and Cold Showers: A Daring Way to Improve Physical and Mental Health

Have you ever considered taking an outdoor bath in the middle of winter, walking barefoot in the snow or starting your day with an ice cold shower. Sounds like a mad thing to do, huh? Let me explain.

My relationship with the cold has changed a lot. Having lived a big part of my life in Estonia, where winters can be very cold, I have always enjoyed snow and ice, but never without two to three layers of clothing. Just five years ago, my morning showers were more like steam saunas as I first turned on the hot water, and then, when the whole room was warm, I jumped under the shower, where I spent a good ten minutes because it was so nice, warm and just comfortable. Getting out from under the stream of hot water into the seemingly cold bathroom could always wait. Very often I felt cold after I got out of the shower, not realizing that the answer to not feeling cold was in the cold itself.

I can’t say I never had any cold water exposure. Sure, at times I dived into snow and jumped into cold water during sauna. It was however very different from what was to follow when, in the early fall of 2012, after another evening swim with our neighbor, he mentioned that he normally continues swimming in the sea until November. The idea is very simple. If you don’t skip a single day, then the successive reduction of water temperature from 20+ Celsius to close to the freezing point will not seem so dramatic, as your body and mind get used to these daily changes. It is about gradually building your reaction to the cold water. Step by step.

I loved the idea! So, every morning after taking Tristan to Kindergarten, I went for a quick swim. September was all good: the water was quite warm – well over fifteen degrees Celsius – and my swim lasted up to ten minutes at times. With fall approaching and soon winter, the time in the water decreased, but I started really enjoying it. I even went for a swim during storms and missed just a couple of times before December arrived. Then, it got extremely cold and the whole sea was covered with ice. As a consequence, I shifted my routine to cold morning showers, which worked well, as the tap water temperature during the winter time is around six to seven degrees only.

Since then, a cold morning shower is one of the most important things to get my day started, in addition to some quiet time and a few bowls of tea.

During the winter time, it is logistically not very easy to go ice swimming, but whenever possible I also do that. There is no rushing or hurrying. When the ice is thicker, it is hard to find a good spot and to create a hole in the ice is not an easy task. A chainsaw (I am serious) is the best tool, however a good axe and a big hammer can also do the job. You should always be cautious when the ice is thin as it easily cracks and breaks when you stand on it. Ice can be very sharp! Because of the cold you won’t feel the cuts and will only realize hours later that you have small cuts on your feet.

Before getting into the cold water, I usually do a very quick warm-up and some stretching. Nothing fancy, just a few minutes. Getting in is a slow process: no diving or jumping. Slowly feeling the new sensation from my toes to neck. I recommend to keep the head warm. Sitting in water, surrounded by the frozen sea, where small ice pieces dance around you, gives a totally different feeling compared to a cold shower.

Normally, I spend just two to three minutes in the icy water. When coming out, there is this amazing feeling of aliveness. The feet get covered first thing. Strong winds are something to watch out for, so get dressed fast. With the cold shower, the time is longer, but this is not a goal itself to extend the time to new records. It is all about the feeling when in the water and when getting out. Different sensations in some part, yet connected.

The benefits of exposing your body to the cold on a regular basis are very broad, both on the body and overall health. Here are some of the main changes that I have experienced over my years of practice:

Mental toughness – Getting out of the comfort zone is the source of growth. Conditioning yourself to embrace more extreme temperatures guarantees a mental challenge. Regularly. This kind of mental resilience proves useful in challenging life situations because it allows us to view and go through experiences with more strength and awareness. We can become comfortable in the face of discomfort. Embracing cold is also a good mindfulness exercise. It is all about how you respond to it. It is either a sensation that you are noticing or suffering.

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” – William Shakespeare

Improved sleep – I am a big advocate for meditation as a tool to transform the mind, and when combined with daily cold water exposure, it has really helped me sleep better. At times when evening meditation still has not calmed down my active thought stream, then just a few minutes in the cold shower washes that stream of thoughts away, clearing my mind for an improved sleep cycle.

A fresh and happy start of the day – Taking or ending the shower with cold water is the source of heightened awareness, new energy and freshness, a stronger sense of ALIVENESS, cheerfulness and a boosted mood. In short: an improved happiness level. What? Yes, cold water triggers a flood of mood-boosting neurotransmitters resulting in happier being. Some studies have also shown that cold immersion reduces stress.

Less cold on the inside – Cold water improves your blood circulation, meaning your organs get more blood and oxygen, which simply put translates to warmer feet and hands. Remember how I felt cold when I came out the warm (mostly hot) shower? The reason is that my body accumulated heat from the outside, leaving the internal heating mechanism idle. When you take a cold shower (or just finish the shower with a cold stream), your body will turn on the internal heating mechanism and when you exit, that system is still working thus you rarely feel cold.

Improved skin – Hot water dries out skin and also hair. My hands used to get pretty dry during winter. Since I’ve started my “cold shower routine”, it has not been an issue. Also the skin feels firmer and due improved blood circulation and by extension increased brown fat production (the healthy kind of fat), the tone has also changed.

Strengthened immunity – My health in general has improved a lot over the last five or so years. The cold clearly plays its role here along with other changes. A study by the Thrombosis Research Institute in England found that individuals who took daily cold showers saw an increase in the number of virus-fighting white blood cells compared to individuals who took hot showers.

Less pain in joints and reduced muscle inflammation – I have broken some of my bones too many times and especially during the damp period of the year, these parts of my body cause some minor pain (think old people with their sore joints). With changes in my diet and cold water immersions, I very rarely notice pain in these parts. Also after high intensity workouts, there is less soreness thanks to cold water because it lowers the damaged tissue temperature, reduces swelling and inflammation. That is one of the reasons top athletes are known to soak in an ice bath after a heavy workout.

***

Other benefits you can expect from cold water immersions include increases in testosterone, that does not just mean boosted libido, but also overall strength and energy. If you are trying to become a dad, then cold showers can be very good for increasing your sperm count. Your testicles hang outside your body for a reason. Weight loss is also supported by cold water exposure. The cold is your friend when it comes to increasing weight loss, boosting metabolism and producing its own brown fat, speeding up the process of burning white fat.

Getting started?

Assuming you don’t have any medical conditions that prevent you from taking cold showers and swimming in the cold, you are good to start this experiment. Remember there is no shortcut on this journey. Change always takes time, it requires commitment and discipline to gradually build something new. Start slowly! It can be just 15 seconds under the cold water initially. The next week you up it to 30 and the change will come. It is not about how long you can sit in an ice bath at one point in time, it is about the changes it brings if you do it daily and build up a stronger you, both mentally and physically. Remember, cold is your friend not the enemy!

If you want to know more about the power of cold and breathing, I recommend Wim Hof’s ten-week course that you can find here. Wim Hof is a Dutch daredevil, commonly nicknamed “The Iceman”, holding 26 world records, including a world record for the longest ice bath. Wim’s life is all about spreading the potential health benefits of his breathing techniques, working closely with scientists around the world to prove that his techniques work.

It is important also to remember that cold water immersion is not a magical pill for improved life, it is in no way a substitute for a balanced diet, regular exercise and different habits. Rather, it is an excellent SUPPLEMENT!

Stay safe and don’t forget to have some fun!

„Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage“.
-Anaïs Nin

P.S. This post was all about cold water immersion and not a word about food as the fake book cover in the video hinted. I’ll touch this somewhat sensitive subject soon. Stay tuned!

Leave a Comment