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The Science Behind Cold Therapy

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showerIt’s 7:30 am and I’m standing in the shower, washing out the last bit of soap that’s once again managed to end up in my eyes.

And now the hard part…fuck. I really don’t want to do this.  

I know the benefits and how amazing this last part is about to make me feel.

Yet every time I’m about to do it — every single time — I still pause, weighing my options: stay standing under the relaxing warm water, or turn the nozzle the opposite way and experience a raw, body-shaking, electric surge that courses through my entire body. 

Through sheer willpower and habit engineering, I turn the nozzle all the way to the right and slowly feel the warm, friendly, gentle water turn into an ice-cold, take-no-prisoners monster that envelopes me fully.

My breathing intensifies as I try but fail to avoid the ice pellets raining down upon my fragile skin. Before I know it, my timer goes off and just like that, it’s over. 

And I feel amazing. 

Why I Do It (And Why You Should Too)

When I first heard about cold exposure for performance and recovery purposes in my days as an athlete, I brushed it off as a useless, new age fad.

It then resurfaced in my research for peak performance when I came across an article detailing the experience of sitting in a -264 degrees Fahrenheit cryotherapy machine for three minutes. 

Undergoing this seemingly futuristic treatment is said to help your body incinerate calories, jolt your immune system back to life, and trigger a flood of mood-boosting endorphins, similar to a runner’s high.

I want something that I can do at home and alas, I’m not yet a millionaire who can afford to buy a cryotherapy machine for myself, so I decided to look into more plebeian means to reap the same potential health benefits. 

That’s how I came to discover:

The Life-Changing Miracle of a Cold Shower

The benefits of cold water therapy are numerous and fully backed by one metric fucktonne of research. 

This weird hack has been studied for generations and even dates back as far as the time when the Spartans used it to recover after battle1.

Today, professional athletes from all over use ice baths to reduce inflammation and speed up recovery. 

Simply put, the cold exposure cleans you out by removing waste products like lactic acid that builds up from exercise2.

Furthermore, when combined with alternating warm and cold water, these seemingly ridiculous showers clean out the lymphatic system. Most simply put, the lymphatic system helps carry waste out from your cells and is a major key in defending your body from unwanted infections. When the lymphatic system is blocked, you can get frequent colds and unexpected joint pain.

These contrast showers — exposing your body to the cold water immediately after a warm shower — cleans out your lymph vessels and drastically improves your immune system. 

The Science: How it All Works

How can Michael Phelps Consume 10,000 Calories a day and not gain fat? Is he lying to the reporters and the Olympics, or are we missing a key component when it comes to fat loss? 

The problem with using the law of thermodynamics (calories in vs. calories out) as our sole equation for how the body loses and gains fat is that it views the ways that energy leaves the body too simplistically.

This says that you can only burn energy through movement and exercise, ignoring that the human body is an open system that can burn energy through heat.

Running a marathon might burn 2600 calories, but working out in an 82-degree pool for four hours can cause you to burn an extra 4,000 calories (when you consider the thermal load of the water3). 

This thing called science has shown that you can burn up to 4 times more fat than usual from just 2 hours of cold exposure: 176.5 mg per minute vs 46.9 mg per minute.4

There are 9 Calories in 1 gram of fat. If you’re in the water for 2 hours, then the water exposure would yield an increased burn of 139 Calories. 

Brown fat (also known as brown adipose tissue, BAT for short) is abundant in iron-rich mitochondria, which helps produce energy and oxidize fat in muscle tissue. BAT helps generate heat that would otherwise end up on your waistline.5

Exposing yourself to cold activates the BAT, which in turn generates heat, raises your metabolism, and burns off fat. It also seems to increase the amount of BAT in the body, leading to more calories burned and a leaner body.

The best way to get these fat burning results is to take a 5-10 min cold shower and let the water run on your upper back/neck area (where more BAT is found).

You can also place an ice pack on your upper back/neck for 30 minutes to achieve the same result.

Okay. Is that it? 

Now as useful and sought-after as fat loss is, I was also intrigued by the potential productivity and performance enhancements that cold showers can deliver. As someone with ever-fluctuating levels of productivity, I’m always seeking out new ways to stay motivated and avoid procrastination. 

In 2007, Nikolai Shevchuk, a molecular biologist, discovered cold water can flood the mood-regulating zones of your brain with happy, carefree neurotransmitters6.

I definitely feel energized after a shower, but it wasn’t the miracle cure for procrastination that many of my loyal cold shower enthusiasts have sworn by.

Sure, the performance-enhancing benefits are nice, as well as the adrenaline rush so early in the morning. However, that’s not why I continue to allow my skin to be pelted by nearly frozen water day in and day out. 

The biggest benefit that I’ve found is simply that a cold shower takes a lot of mental strength to accomplish. 

Point blank: they’re hard. Like really, really hard. 

And as research shows, people who do hard things early in the day tend to accomplish more and procrastinate less.7

To a cold shower virgin, the amount of willpower it takes to submerge oneself underneath a frozen waterfall may seem like that of a Shaolin Monk.

Doing something that you are resistant to every day, immediately upon waking, takes an absurd amount of mental strength and discipline. It’s the best way to start your day, and over time, these habits become automated and bleed into every area of your life.

The world is full of scary things; we’re at our best when we tackle them bravely and with confidence, not when we’ve built up habits of shying away from things. 

Think of it, quite literally, as stepping out of your comfort zone. So, set your alarm for five minutes earlier, and  before you rush out of your shower, turn it all the way cold. It’s going to be fun; it might be scary, but in no time, you’ll have built it up as a habit. 

Resources

  1. The Spartans bathed in ice-cold water to build mental toughness.
  2. Kirsi A. Virtanen, Martin E. Lidell, Janne Orava, Mikael Heglind, Rickard Westergren, Tarja Niemi, Markku Taittonen, Jukka Laine, Nina-Johanna Savisto, Sven Enerbäck, Pirjo Nuutila. Functional brown adipose tissue in healthy adults. N Engl J Med. 2009 April 9; 360(15): 1518–1525. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa0808949
  3. In heat transfer, the thermal conductivity or load of a substance is an intensive property that indicates its ability to conduct heat. This causes you to lose heat faster in water than air, which causes your body to work overtime in order to replace it.
  4. The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferris
  5. Barbara Cannon, Jan Nedergaard. Brown adipose tissue: function and physiological significance. Physiol Rev. 2004 January; 84(1): 277–359. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00015.2003
  6. Nikolai A. Shevchuk. Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Med Hypotheses. 2008; 70(5): 995–1001. Published online 2007 November 13. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2007.04.052
  7. Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.
About the Author

Ambitious, challenging and unapologetic, Peter has committed his life to turning 1,000,000 deserving men worldwide into living superheroes. He lives by the code truth above all, always and forever. He also loves green juice, reading books about great men, engaging in all sorts of debauchery, long walks on the beach, Marathon Lego-building sessions, Pokemon, meditation, and defending his undefeated pushup contest. For more info, check out The Badass Body Blueprint.

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