God knows we all need a release from the monotony of lockdown number 3,642 - and a freestanding copper tub is the way to go about it, for A-listers at least.
But there’s more to this trend than a good ‘gram opportunity. How does more energy, better sleep, improved focus and stronger willpower sound for starters? Then there’s reduced stress levels, a strengthened immune system, faster post-workout recovery and a more creative mind. That’s according to Wim Hof, aka The Iceman (@iceman_hof), who shot to mainstream fame after being featured in Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Lab Netflix series last year.
The extreme endurance athlete, who holds world records for withstanding ridiculously freezing temperatures for unimaginably long periods of time, is evangelical about cold exposure. Immersing yourself in icy water “brings balance to the hormonal system,” he says, thus impacting everything from melatonin production to cortisol production - or the sleep and stress hormones, respectively.
Research suggests regularly plunging yourself into cold water may alter how you respond to stress, too. One study found that repeated cold-water immersion over a period of time reduces the adrenaline-driven sympathetic response to other life stressors. Another older study found that cold exposure boosts production of norepinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter associated with mood, focus and attention span.
“The cold exercises your vascular system, bringing about flow and leaving you in control of your own body,” Hof says in a Q&A video, adding he believes “a cold shower a day keeps the doctor away.” And he may not be wrong, a large Dutch study found that people who regularly took cold showers took 29 per cent less sick days than those who did not.
Tony Riddle, a natural lifestyle coach and barefoot endurance athlete, practices cold immersion every day. “It has a huge array of physical benefits from cellular response, immune support, to digestion and stimulation of the vagus nerve,” he says. “It also acts as a micro-hit of adversity where, through the breath, you can then find a state of inner calm.”
There is no one superior way to partake in cold exposure, according to Hof. Whether it’s in a chest freezer, taking a cold bath, shower, dip in the sea, even stint in a cryotherapy chamber, it’s about finding a method that you can do regularly. “It doesn’t have to be as cold as 1 or 2 degrees, it could be 10, 11,13 degrees,” he says. But an icy shower in the morning is probably one of the easiest way to introduce a daily cold therapy ritual into your routine. To get started, Riddle suggests: “Either enter the shower at your normal temperature, then reduce the temperature, or step straight into the cold for a minute or two. Let the water run over your head, down your shoulders, over your whole body front to back.” Then slowly build your time each day - you want to be aiming for between two and four minutes.
Breathing is a central part of the Wim Hof Method, and when recently guiding Joe Wicks through his first ice bath he talks him through a series of breathing exercises to “oxygenate the body, to keep calm and endure the shock of the cold water.” He instructs Wicks to take 30 deep breaths, inhales and exhales, then hold his breath for between 1.5 and three minutes before hopping the the tub (Wicks achieves over two minutes which is a pretty impressive feat in itself).
Once immersed in the cold, Riddle suggests, “focus on long, slow, steady exhales out of your mouth when immersing. Relax the shoulders and close your eyes (you might want to set a timer for a few minutes). When it’s time to come out shake out your body.”
When best to do it? Many Silicon Valley types, including Twitter’s Dorsey, list an ice cold shower as part of their morning routine to set them up for the day, but Hof says really you can do it at any time of day and still reap the benefits, even just before bed, because by incorporating breathing exercises you will calm down the central nervous system.
Plenty of tennis stars, like Andy Murray and Naomi Osaka, swear by ice baths post-workout to aid recovery, which Riddle also does to help heal and repair his body after an endurance run, but he says it’s crucial to allow your body to “down regulate first”. Leave at least 30 minutes after intense exercise.
Want to give it a go? Just remember Hof’s golden rule: “don’t force it” - a gradual approach will see you reap the benefits and maybe even start to enjoy it.