By Emma Stessman
Covering 13.1 miles in a half-marathon seems like quite the accomplishment, right? Now imagine running that same distance, in the Arctic Circle, wearing shorts…while barefoot.
That’s exactly what Wim Hof (otherwise known as “The Iceman”) did, and he claims almost anyone can follow suit. Sure, running across the Arctic barefoot seems next-level, but by following the aptly named Wim Hof method, a combination of cold exposure, breathing techniques, and a determined mentality, he says you can train your body to adapt to extremely cold temperatures––a feat that he says comes with numerous benefits to your overall health.
And yes, it is possible to train your body to be out in the cold all the time, says Neil Paulvin, MD, a New York City-based functional medicine doctor, but that doesn’t mean you should.
“I don’t recommend that most people take it to this extreme level,” Dr. Paulvin says. “They need to progress slowly, and anyone who does want to take it to a higher level should have their health, heart, and lungs cleared by a doctor.” Instead, he says, people can see some of the benefits that might come from extreme cold exposure––like boosted immunity and improved focus––with a simple cold shower. “Start taking cold showers for 30 seconds, then turn the water warm,” Dr. Paulvin says. “Then, try to end the shower with 30 more seconds of cold.”
Most of the research on Hof’s method is happening right now, so it’ll be a few years before we know for sure if there’s science to back up the supposed benefits. In the meantime, we took a look at some of the science behind a more moderate approach, in case you want (and are brave enough!) to give it a go.
The Possible Benefits of Cold Showers
1. Improved Stress Response
Exposing yourself to the cold can improve the way your body responds to stress and lower your stress levels overall, says Dr. Paulvin. The initial shock of the cold water will cause your sympathetic nervous system to rev up its fight-or-flight response (think: increased heart rate, faster breathing, sharpened senses.) But as your body adjusts to the frigid temps, you’ll return to a parasympathetic, or a resting, state. By triggering this short period of temporary stress, you can help your body to get used to handling stress over time and become more adept at controlling cortisol levels when they spike, Dr. Paulvin says.
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2. Booosted Mood
One study found that people who swam in cold water four times a week for four months reported a decrease in feelings of fatigue and improved mood. Researchers in the study speculate that the exposure to cold water could have similar pain and inflammation-relieving effects to cryotherapy, which could contribute to mood improvement. Another study suggests that a two- to three-minute daily cold showers could have potential antidepressant effects, though more research is needed.
3. Improved Immunity
It’s possible that taking a cold shower can also improve your immune response, Dr. Paulvin says. One small study found that acute exposure to cold water (participants in the study took a cold bath) could have immune-boosting effects. Another study shows that people who took a short, 30-second cold shower every day had a 29 percent decline in sick days taken off from work.
And no, we won’t blame you if you wait until summer to testing it out for yourself.