Cold therapies such as cold showers and ice baths are much more mental than physical. Your body might be the one exposed to the heat sink, but your mind is the one that keeps you there. You are making the decision to go out of your thermal comfort zone—into the cold. My goal is to help you understand: why you should incorporate cold therapies into your life, how to do them safely, and where the best place to start is.
The cold will not give you a cold
Traditional wisdom says that being cold should be avoided to prevent sickness. More people get sick in winter than in summer, so obviously, the cold must be to blame. It was also obvious to those living in the 1850s that miasma was the cause of cholera; miasma being an unpleasant smell or vapour.
Now that we have established germ theory, we know that miasma is not responsible for cholera. We have since discovered that drinking water contaminated with Asiatic cholera actually causes the disease. The reason I am explaining this is to illustrate that correlation is not causation.
People tend to get sick more in winter, that is a fact, but not because they are cold. They get sick because of what the cold does to them. Cold weather either directly or indirectly:
- Decreases vitamin D production
- Increases proximity to others
- Causes airway blood vessels to narrow
- Makes our nasal cavity more susceptible to infection.
More details can be found here. Increased sickness in winter is due to the cold air we breathe and our reluctance to go outside rather than how cold we are. Therefore, although the cold therapies I am suggesting might make you shiver, they will not increase your chance of getting sick; they might even decrease it.
Safety Precautions are a Must
You might not get the sniffles, but jumping directly into a frozen lake can be dangerous as it stresses the heart. Mild stress is good, it is what we are aiming for. Severe stress on the other hand should be avoided. It is best to consult your doctor before starting an ice bath or cold shower routine—to make sure it is safe for you.
You can minimize stress on your heart by starting slow. Below I outline my suggestion for getting started. But more generally, I mean taking the appropriate steps towards having cold showers and ice baths.
Cold showers are relatively safe once your get over the initial shock, ice baths are on a whole other level. When you feel that you are ready for ice baths, it is important to always have another person standing by.
The risk of drowning and hypothermia are very real, so take precautions but don’t be scared of the cold water. It takes 30 minutes for hypothermia to settle in so you are at no risk if you are taking an ice bath for less than five minutes or even up to 15 minutes. You might shiver like mad when you get out but wrap yourself in a blanket with some tea and you will warm up in no time.
Jumping into a hot shower sounds like a great idea and feels amazing. However, the sudden shock increases the risk of damaging your heart and can negate the positive impact of cold therapy. The reason for getting in the cold water in the first place is to train your body to warm itself up, so no cheating. Be patient, the warm glow will come.
Why You Should Join the Movement
It’s not just about that warm glow and feeling great, multiple short and long-term benefits come from regular cold exposure. Such as1,2:
- Improve your immune system
- Increase your metabolism
- Cut down on muscle soreness
- Deepen your meditation practice
- Slow your rate of aging
Just look at Wim Hof, he is over 60 and still looks great. By stressing your body you prepare yourself to better deal with both mental and physical stress. To get the most benefits you need to get in the habit of taking cold showers and then taking ice baths at regular intervals.
These benefits can be broken down into two categories: mental and physical. On the mental side, science says that all the happy hormones are released when you finish a cold shower, leaving you feeling great.1
I can honestly say I am now addicted to taking cold showers. I occasionally take a hot one and it leaves me unsatisfied. It’s like having an alcohol-free beer; it’s just not the same.
When you go from hot to cold you are leaving a comfortable place, sure the warm shower was great, but the outside world sucks in comparison. When you get out of a cold shower. That sucked! Ice cold water running down every inch of your skin is not inherently fun, I know. But when you get out, it feels great, the world around you becomes a warm and comfortable place.
While you can feel a mental boost immediately when you get out of a cold shower, the physical benefits are more long-term and harder to notice. After all, it is hard to see that you have improved your immune system or metabolism. This metabolism boost comes from the production of brown fat.
Brown fat cells are more like muscle cells than white fat cells. White fat cells store energy in the form of (you guessed it) fat, while brown fat cells are far more vascular and burn energy to generate more heat.
It is all very complicated. Basically, more brown fat means more passive energy consumption boosting your metabolism and helping you to better thermo-regulate in cold weather. More information about this process can be found here or from reading David A. Sinclair’s book Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To.
The 3-Step Approach to an Ice bath
Step 1: Breathing
Now that you have seen the health disclaimers and learned the benefits it’s time to get started. The first thing you should do is breathe. You can follow the method Wim Hof developed specifically to help you stay warm or simply meditate.
Personally, I don’t do his technique. Instead, I have developed a daily mindfulness meditation practice. Meditation helps you be in control of what you focus on. The last thing you want is to be focused on how cold the water is. Instead, you will focus on your breath, a smell, music, or literally anything other than the ice-cold water touching your skin.
Step 2: Cold Showers
Once you have the breathing down you are ready to turn off the hot water. When I say off, I mean completely off, the goal is to have a cold shower, not a cool one. But to start it is okay to start your shower warm just be sure to end it cold. You will get the most out of your shower when you finish it cold and then warm yourself up naturally.
Getting into the cold water is 9 parts mental and 1 part physical so developing some sort of breathing ritual will be your cue and will help you make a habit of the cold exposure. My breathing ritual is three deep breaths before turning on the cold water.
When getting started, meditation timers such as Insight Timer are great because they do not require you to interact with your phone. Your schedule for transitioning from hot to cold could be as follows:
Set yourself a timer with three bells. At the first bell, start your breathing ritual and start transitioning your shower from hot to cold. By the time the second bell rings the hot water should be off and your cold shower will have begun. The last bell indicates the end of your desired cold exposure. Feel free to be more or less aggressive but be sure to keep progressing towards your goal: a cold shower from start to finish.
It is much harder to transition from a warm shower to a cold one than it is to simply get into a cold shower. Think about it. When you transition, you go from a comfortable warm place to a miserable cold one. Meanwhile, when you start with cold water, you go from being naked, dry and cold, to naked, wet and colder, much easier.
Step 3: Ice Bath
When I last visited Canada I was excited that my brother had a bathtub (my flat in Vienna does not have one) and the first thing I did was to start filling it with snow. He did not want to join me, but finally caved when our dad came to town and I convinced the two of them that it was a good idea. They were definitely not ready for it, they had not yet started taking cold showers, but you will be ready for this.
Fill the tub, get some ice and most importantly, get as many distractions as you can. When I first started taking ice baths we used aromatic oils and certain sounds to distract us. Oils that remind you of the summer heat are best because they help you visualize a warm place; the same goes for the music. Play some music or sound that will make you think of a warm environment, like the crackle of a fire or music you listened to at your summer barbeque. Things that will help you visualize yourself surrounded by warmth.
Once you have the bath all set up, throw on your bathing suit and get ready for the plunge. You can also use a timer to challenge yourself. This time all you need is two bells. One to go in, and one to get out.
It is a lot easier on your heart if you go in slowly. So when your first bell rings slowly get into the water and focus on getting your breath under control. When your breath is back to normal, you can start to visualize your warm place and wait patiently for the bell to ring.
Step 4: Bonus Fun for Social Gatherings
Now that you have your cold therapy plan all set up there is one more thing you can do to introduce others to cold therapy. Hand and foot ice baths. It is a lot easier to set up an ice bath for hands than it is for full body immersion and it is a great way to introduce this new aspect of your life to your friends or dinner guests.
When I was living in New Zealand my landlord and I did this a few times. We would fill some ice cream containers with water, put them in the freezer. Then, when we had finished eating and the conversation lulled, we would fill a plastic tub with water, dump the ice in it and put it on the table. Making that dinner party, one to remember.
It’s important to have fun with it. The easiest way to get through all forms of cold therapy is to laugh. Have fun with it and remember why you are doing it. You will be working out your mind, boosting your metabolism and you will feel great. Go on. You are almost there.
1. Knechtle B, Waśkiewicz Z, Sousa CV, Hill L, Nikolaidis PT. Cold Water Swimming-Benefits and Risks: A Narrative Review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(23):8984. Published 2020 Dec 2. doi:10.3390/ijerph17238984
2. Sinclair, D. and LaPlante, M., 2019. LIFESPAN: WHY WE AGE AND WHY WE DON’T HAVE TO. New York: Simon & Schuster.