This week, I want to discuss the benefits of cold exposure. The temperatures are in the single digits outside, and the 60 students in the Unstoppable Course just finished a “fun” weekly challenge around the cold, so now seemed like the perfect time to share why, and how, cold can actually benefit our body and mind.
For most of my adult life, I have hated the cold, so when I got the chance to move to Florida 10 years ago, I jumped at it. I later learned that I had a condition called Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease of the thyroid. Moving to Florida would not solve my issues. One of the main symptoms for me was being perennially cold no matter what climate I was in. For a while, I was in denial. Then I would wear an extra layer of clothes just to keep warm, and finally, I decided to actually do something about my constant feelings of coldness. That meant that, in addition to getting my thyroid under control with proper medication, I needed to learn about cold exposure. As with anything else, with proper training and exposure, I would build this “muscle” and improve my tolerance of the cold.
As part of my education, I recently signed up for an online course from an expert in cold exposure, Wim Hof (also know as the Iceman). Wim Hof teaches techniques, including proper breathing, to not just withstand the cold, but also make it beneficial to you. His “go-to” strategy is the cold shower — you might have already guessed that taking cold showers was the weekly challenge for the Unstoppable Course. If you decide you want to take this challenge, just a reminder: The colder it is outside, the colder your shower can be … brrrrrr!
It might seem crazy to take cold showers, but of course, hot showers are a luxury, not a necessity. Throughout most of human history, people had to bathe in whatever water was available to them. If you’ve ever swum in a lake, you can probably remember that said water often happened to be cold. But it’s not just that cold water is available; cold water has actual benefits, as well.
1. Improved mood
Who doesn’t feel a bit groggy when taking that first step out of bed? This is something everyone struggles with, but if you’d like to put some pep in your step first thing in the morning, take a cold shower before you go to work. When cold water pours over your body, your breathing deepens in response to the shock of the cold (this is your body trying to keep you warm by increasing overall oxygen intake). Your heart rate will also increase, resulting in a rush of blood through your body that will help you get energized for the day.
2. Increased metabolic advantages/weight loss
There are two kinds of fat in your body: white fat and brown fat. White fat is the bad guy (think the Joker) and brown fat is the good guy (think Batman). When we consume more calories than our body needs to function and we don’t burn those calories for energy, they are stored as white fat, which tends to accumulate at your waist, lower back, neck and thighs. Brown fat is the good guy you might have never even heard of, and its function is to generate heat to keep your body warm. Here’s the good news: When brown fat is activated due to extreme cold, it burns calories to keep you warm, which could provide a helpful assist in your weight loss plan. How much of an assist? Scandinavian researchers found that exposure to cold temperatures increased the metabolic rate of brown fat by fifteenfold, which could help a person drop nine pounds in a year if sustained.
3. Increased immune strength and improved blood circulation
Not only do cold showers speed up your metabolic rate, which helps you to lose fat, but they also activate your immune system, which releases virus-fighting white blood cells that will help you get sick less frequently. Cold showers also increase your overall blood circulation, which can help you avoid hypertension and the hardening of arteries.
4. Boost recovery after exercise
Athletes often take ice baths after vigorous training to reduce soreness. Yours truly takes them regularly, especially after hard workouts and races. You don’t have to take it that far, but you can obtain a similar benefit with a quick cold shower after your training sessions. Maybe dropping a pencil or walking upstairs won’t be quite so agonizing with a little dose of cold after all of that running. From personal experience, I find that I recover much quicker if I take an ice bath after a workout. Inflammation seems to really go down.
5. Better tolerate cold weather
I find that by taking a cold shower every day, going out into the freezing temperatures no longer feels that intimidating. Once my body warms up after the shower, the cold just doesn’t seem so cold anymore. A little short-term discomfort is well worth the benefits for the remainder of the day.
6. Big goals require discomfort to achieve
This is my favorite benefit. Very few people, including me, naturally prefer a freezing cold shower, especially when with a quick turn of the knob, the water is nice and cozy. The reality is that you can view cold showers as a metaphor for achieving your goals, which always comes with some level of discomfort. Starting each day this way gets me in the mindset of leaning into all those “difficult” tasks coming my way. At some level, I feel like I have already had a mini-victory and the day has barely started.
At this point, you are probably thinking I am a little crazy or perhaps on to something — maybe a little of both! If you’d like to take advantage of the surprising benefits of cold showers, I’d suggest starting off by simply switching your water temperature from hot to cold every 10-20 seconds. When you’re feeling brave and have the mental toughness you need to survive the shivering, try a full-blast cold shower on for size. Challenge accepted? As we all know, it takes 21 days to build a new habit, so try sticking with it for more than a day or two. In the end, this is about tolerating some short-term pain for some long-term gain. Go for it!