The Health and Fitness Benefits of a Cold Shower

It’s Time You Start Turning That Shower Dial to Cold

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As temperatures start to plummet, you pack away your summer wardrobe and unwrap your winter layers, the last thing you would expect to do is take a cold shower. However, research has shown that cold showers can be immensely beneficial for the body and mind, often resulting in a strengthened immune system, mood boost, pain relief, and body regulation.

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If you thought cold showers were limited to hard-core athletes, ice bucket challengers, or to reduce unwanted urges – think again, as the likes of Tony Robbins, Robin Sharma, Miranda Kerr, Madonna, and Lady Gaga are all big advocates. Not to mention, Ian Fleming’s iconic 007 has been widely referenced for taking “Scottish Showers” (a piping hot shower immediately followed by one-minute of ice-cold water).

When Did the Cold Shower Trend Start?

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of diving into a cold shower is not new. Hippocrates and Plato have both been recorded as early adopters, in addition to people from ancient Asia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Though in the last decade a trend seems to have formed, with the concept most recently being highlighted in a Goop Lab episode, featuring Dutch athlete Wim Hof.

Hof, nicknamed the “The Iceman” is notably the most referenced on Google and amongst cold water enthusiasts for his brave ideals. He recently released a book, detailing his method, but in a nutshell, the foundation of it is built on breathing techniques, cold therapy (submerging the body in icy cold water or snow), and commitment. Sure, this might all sound a bit extreme but research shows that it can have a positive impact on your health and fitness the more it’s practiced.

If you want to start small with your cold dips, no judgment here. Triathlete Joel Runyon, who delivered a Ted Talk on his challenge to complete 30 days of cold showers, swears that taking cold showers for just five-minutes a day made him both mentally and physically stronger because it allowed him to embrace feeling uncomfortable. This challenge became a habit and lead him to complete an Ironman and Ultramarathon, start his own business, and get into the best shape of his life.

What Happens When You Take a Cold Shower?

Let’s break the ice. There’s a reason why the majority of people are not rushing to take cold showers. However, the minority who do give it a go more than once, tend to stick with it. The act of engulfing your body into cold water triggers a fight or flight response, releasing a surge of ‘stress hormones,’ including cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline (the adrenal hormone that raises your spirits). This then makes your heart rate shoot up and causes you to breathe harder.

If you decide to keep at it, this process will become like second nature to you and you will be better able to control stressful situations by calming your chemical and hormonal changes – ‘hormetic stressors’ – that also occur when you exercise.

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Health and Fitness Benefits of Taking a Cold Shower

1. Boosts Your Mood

Seeking your next pick-me-up? The British Medical Journal found that wild swimming (swimming outdoors, commonly in cold water) has neuroprotective and therapeutic effects that can instantly provide an energy lift to those who have symptoms of depression. While you might not have access to a pool or large body of water suitable for swimming, a similar experience can be recreated in your morning shower. And let’s face it, who doesn’t want to feel more revitalized and alert in the early a.m?

In some cases, cold hydrotherapy (water therapy) has been used as an alternative treatment to antidepressant medication, as it has been linked to having similar effects on the body. When you shiver, you breathe harder, so the body can take in more oxygen, and that gets distributed faster to keep the body warm which can feel like a mental boost.

In the TV series Easy Ways to Live Well, Celebrity chef and self-proclaimed worrier Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tried taking three- to five-minute cold showers every day (under the guidance of Dr. Zoe William) for a process called cross-adaption; to help calm his anxiety. The results showed, after completing a series of psychological tests, his scores for tension and anxiety had decreased by 50 percent, his stress response had lowered, and three months post-experiment he still practices cold water therapy every day.

2. Relieves Pain

An ice pack or a cold compress are commonly used for pain relief, and cold water in the shower works no differently. It’s been said that Hippocrates recommended bathing in spring water to ‘allay lassitude’ and often now, people are prescribed the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) to alleviate pain and swelling.

Ever felt muscle tightness or throbbing after a strenuous workout? This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). With a cold shower, you can help reduce any swelling and inflammation in your body that is occurring from DOMS. Not to mention, the cold will reduce your perception of pain, since it slows the nervous system’s transmission of pain signals to the brain. Research has actually found that taking cold water baths after working out was more beneficial in helping sore muscles than simply resting.

3. Supports the Immune System

We all strive to be pillars of health. While some may reach for a multivitamin, burn soothing oils, and/or eat all the organic produce they can get their hands on, adding a burst of frost to your day should be added to that list of immune-boosting practices, too.

Within the last five years, there has been new evidence that shows a quick 30- to 90-second hot-to-cold shower helped decrease participants’ number of sick days at work and improved their overall productivity.

Gillian Ehrlich, DNP, ARNP, and Gut Council Member for Jetson Probiotics says “the gut holds almost 70 percent of the immune system and cold water immersion stimulates immune activity, as it can increase a whole variety of immune cells.”

4. Improves Circulation

While exercise and movement are, of course, critical components in maintaining strong circulation, cold water can help give it a boost, as well. Since cold water stimulates blood flow around your vital organs, when done regularly, it can help muscles and other tissues repair, meaning you will be at a reduced chance of headaches, muscle cramping, high blood pressure, and blood clots.

5. Aids Weight Loss

Your body burns calories when it’s trying to keep you warm – it’s a fact. If you start to shiver your body will burn more calories and can, in turn, produce more brown adipose tissue aka brown fat. This is a tissue we are all born with, it breaks down blood sugar and fat molecules to create heat and maintain body temperature.

A study, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, found that taking a cold shower every day could help you lose up to nine pounds a year.

6. Benefits Hair and Skin

Consistent use of hot water strips away some of the natural protective oils from your skin and scalp. If you suffer from skin irritation or dandruff, it’s recommended that you turn the tap to cold, or at least warm in your next shower. This will make a big difference long-term for both your hair and skin to help soothe, brighten, refresh, and shrink pores.

Celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab says “for the skin, a cold shower will help reduce inflammation, swelling, and puffiness. Whether it’s a sauna, an ice bath, or a cold shower, less is more and it shouldn’t be for more than 60 to 90 seconds. You don’t have to worry about going to a cryo facility and can easily create the same effect at home.”

7. Could Save Your Life

Dr. Chris van Tulleken, on the Trust Me, I’m a Doctor video series, explained that if you fall into cold water, the temperature often triggers a shock reaction that makes you gasp and inhale water, which can be a fatal response. Conditioning yourself with cold showers will give your body the tools it needs to respond in a calmer fashion, should you ever run into this kind of emergency scenario.

How to Start Taking Cold Showers

Here’s the fun part. Depending on your comfort threshold, you may want to jump straight into that five-minute cold shower or gradually build up your tolerance by easing yourself into it, going from hot-to-warm-to-cold. There is no right or wrong way to start, but keep in mind, the colder the water the more benefits you’ll reap. Ridge Davis, a Puma sponsored athlete and trainer at The Wall Fitness recommends you take a cold one “Five to six times a week. Starting with one-minute each day and increasing the time week after week until your entire shower is at a cold temperature.”

Also, don’t forget to have a warm towel nearby when you’re done.

Note: If you have any medical conditions please contact your doctor before attempting to take a cold shower.

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