The impact of deliberate cold exposure

I've started taking cold showers first thing in the morning for faster recovery. But the benefits for longevity are potentially much greater.

The impact of deliberate cold exposure
IA generated image of a me taking a cold shower

It's almost mid December and I've just had a cold shower first thing in the morning. The shower itself was actually terrible but now I'm feeling pretty great. This is not my first time though; I've been taking cold showers for the past weeks. I've incorporated them in my longevity framework as part of my day to day. Why?

In October 2022 I started a program to get in the best physical shape of my life by the time I hit 30 (March 2023). So I set up some strength goals, some body composition goals and started training more and harder. Way more... way harder. But after a few weeks I felt I was starting to slow down the peace because I wasn't recovering as fast as I wanted.

Day 1: Holy mother of dragons... these have been most painful 15 seconds ever.

Cold for centuries

This is not new and for sure I didn't invent it. An ice bath in the water of a frozen lake is the typical nordic routine: this video from Jonna Jinton went viral a few years ago. Plus, we've used cold as a treatment for over 5000 years and we've used cryo-therapies to improve health, injury and post-exercise recovery for centuries. Until a few decades a go it was all mambo-jambo but now we're actually starting to understand the biology behind its benefits.

Interest for ice baths in the last 5 years

The first time I personally heard about using cold for recovery was back in 2017 when I was training Krav Maga in Madrid. At the end of one of our trainings, Alexandre Orozco (best martial arts teacher I've ever had) started talking about recovery through cold exposure and the amazing capabilities of the human body to endure even the most extreme cold under certain conditions.

Day 6: Today I literally shed a tear 🥲 at the end of those 30 seconds. Those amazing capabilities... seems like I don't have them. Yet.

Back in 2017 deliberate cold exposure, either ice baths or cold showers, was not mainstream. A few Google searches would point you to crazy eastern europeans (Russians or Romanians) or to Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman. He is a Dutch extreme athlete known for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. Wim Hof has set numerous records for swimming and climbing in the cold, and has developed a method for controlling his body's autonomic functions through a combination of meditation, breathing exercises, and cold exposure.

Day 10: Oh, this wasn’t that bad actually. I could’ve probably stayed there for another 15 seconds.
Interest for cold showers in the past 5 years

In the last years athletes, celebrities and influencers have helped to popularize ice baths and cold showers as a means for faster recovery; and at times as a means for entertainment. Just look at Kevin Hart with his Cold as Balls show where he interviews celebrities or investors while taking an ice bath.

Day 11:  Those 15 extra seconds were hell. I need to learn more about cold exposure if I want to keep doing this.

So even if at the time I didn't understood all the science behind, in late November I started taking cold showers first thing in the morning. How hard could it be? I'm Romanian, for cold's sake!

Cold for benefits

It's surprising to see how much material there is today on ice baths or cold showers. Check Dr. Rhonda Patrick's article on it or Andrew Huberman's podcast going very deep on the topic. But in a nutshell:

  • Improved mood and cognition → releases of norepinephrine into the bloodstream which is a neurotransmitter involved in vigilance, focus, attention, and mood
  • Decreased inflammation → decreases inflammation in people with inflammatory conditions and in those who have undergone exercise training. This leads to faster recovery and less soreness after trainings
  • Mitochondrial biogenesis → mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, responsible for generating the majority of the cell's energy. When the body is exposed to cold temperatures, it has to work harder to maintain its core temperature, which can increase the demand for energy. In response to this increased demand, the body can stimulate the production of new mitochondria to help meet the demand for energy. This is associated with greater aerobic capacity and performance and reduced risk factors for various diseases
  • Thermogenesis → increases metabolic heat production
  • Brown adipose tissue activation →  brown fat is primarily used to generate heat and maintain body temperature. Cold exposure can activate brown fat by increasing the demand for heat production in the body
  • Activation of antioxidant enzymes → functions as a stressor to activate endogenous antioxidant enzymes that protect cells from damage and promote overall health and well-being
  • Altered microbiome activity → the composition of gut microbiota may be altered to support the activation of nonshivering thermogenesis in part by increasing the uptake of carbohydrates and lipoprotein-derived triglyceride

Cold for today

There are a few steps you can take to make the transition from 0 to those 11 minutes (or more) easier. I chose to turn off the hot water at the very end of my shower, increasing the amount of time I spend under the cold water from 15 to 15 seconds every 5 days. But there are other approaches. You could try taking lukewarm showers and gradually reducing the temperature over time.

Day 13: Nothing wakes you up quicker a Sunday morning than a cold shower.

Additionally, focusing on your breathing and using techniques like deep breathing or meditation can help you stay calm and relaxed while you're under the cold water. It's also important to listen to your body and take things at your own pace, so don't be afraid to take breaks or go back to lukewarm water if you're feeling overwhelmed.

Day 20: That wasn't that bad. Could've stayed there 15 seconds more without any problem.

I've found that doing them first thing in the morning is the best option because:

  • it wakes you up like no coffee will
  • makes your body generate heat; it's not a good idea to do them right before going to bed
  • can circuit break muscle growth (hypertrophy) when done after a workout. Which may be fine for performance atheltes but for me hypertrophy wins

So how is it? To be 100% honest with y'all... every time I turn on the cold water I tell myself I won't do that shit again. But the next day I go and do that shit again. It doesn't get warmer, it doesn't get more pleasant and it doesn't get more comfortable. But I did get more used to be in the cold. Week by week I can stay under the cold water for longer. Joe Rogan shows his experience here  (you can watch very similar stories of anyone who starts with ice baths or cold showers).

It completely changed my life? No. But it improved it significantly if I don't take into account the minutes I'm under the cold water. Those minutes are still hell. I do feel less sore, I am recovering way faster and I am waaaaaay more calm during the day. I think the biggest impact the cold is having is actually on my mind. It's the best kind of meditation I've ever did because under the cold there is no anxiety, no tomorrow, no problems, no thoughts. Nothing but the cold. Nothing but the present. I love how Jonna Jinton explains it in this video. That's why I included the practice in the mental health part of my longevity framework. And about the benefits on my metabolism and my immune system, it's too soon to tell. I haven't reached the 11 minutes yet so I think all the benefits are going to improve even more in the following weeks.

Wim Hof's 20 days of cold showers challenge

In theory you need at least 11 minutes of deliberate cold exposure to take advantage of the benefits. Otherwise it's just a very powerful alarm clock to wake you up. I'm not there yet. I'm at 1 minute of cold but in the next weeks I plan to increase that time until I reach Hoffer level (more than 3 minutes). I'll eventually ditch the hot water altogether.

In the near future I'd like to go from cold showers to ice baths and at least once in my life I plan to swim in the Arctic Ocean. If Chris Hemsworth did it, so can I... right?

As for now, all I can say is that I successfully incorporated cold showers in my longevity framework: a set of tools that I use for practical and applicable longevity in my day to day. It focuses on physical exercise, nutrition, sleep, cognitive health and supplements. I'll continue to write about both: practical longevity and how I put it in practice in my own life. And also about advancements in the science behind slowing down aging and even rejuvenation therapies. If you'd like to join me in this journey, just subscribe and share it just with one person that would find this helpful or interesting.

Subscribe to Stanete's

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson