This is part 1 of a two-part post to memorialize my experience with the Wim Hof Method. I’ve been at it for about six months now. This week, I’m covering the cold water immersion; next week, I’ll discuss conscious breathing.
Last November, Mikhaila Peterson interviewed Wim Hoff, “The Iceman,”on her podcast. Wim Hof has a three-pronged approach to mental and physical health, which involves cold water immersion, conscious breathing, and, combining the two, commitment to the method.
I found the conversation fascinating because I’m a big believer in improving health naturally, or, as I call it, “can’t hurt, might help” medicine. I gave it a try, and it’s been about six months, so I wanted to put an update out there.
The “true” Wim Hof method involves immersion in ice water, but since accessing a frosty cold lake or routinely tossing a 20 pound bag of ice into your bath tub is not a reality for most of us, Wim Hof offers the more available alternative of a daily three-minute cold shower.
I chose a hybrid. I sat in my unheated spa for 10 minutes a day, and followed up with a cold shower to rinse off the chlorine. I live in Southern California, so at the height of winter, my spa only reached the high 50s. I never tried to modify it by adding ice. Currently, it’s in the 70s, so I’m not getting the benefits I did a couple of months ago, but I’m sticking with my daily soaks, which is the “commitment” prong of Wim’s method.
It took about two months to get used to the cold temperatures. I probably stood on the ledge, knee deep in the chilly water, for five minutes before talking myself into slow, full immersion. Over time, I shortened the “get in” time, but to this day I experience some hesitantcy. It doesn’t feel natural to step willingly into cold water. But this is a key part of the Wim Hof Method: building mental strength by facing and overcoming an act both your body and mind are rejecting.
Initially, and then throughout the winter, I shivered for the whole 10 minute immersion, sometimes violently. As the water has gotten warmer, I shiver less, but I am still keenly aware of the discomfort.
Initially, I monitored my body temperature, and found it was routinely about 95 degrees, which is borderline hypothermia. I only immersed for 10 minutes, so I wasn’t seriously concerned about a medical emergency, and my normal temperature tends to run low. Nevertheless, as I sat in the water, I chatted with the birds who visited a tray feeder in the tree next to the spa. If my words were clear, I was good. (Slurred speech is a sign of hypothermia.) This method might not be backed by the American Medical Association, but hey, give me points for creativity.
A few more notes here. When I started, I was simultaneously intermittent fasting. I’d stop eating around 7 pm. In the morning, I’d drink black coffee, walk the dog, come home and do Wim Hof conscious breathing, followed by the cold soak, and then breakfast around 11 am. I read somewhere along the way you’re not supposed to do cold water immersion on an empty stomach, although I never found an explanation. It might be related to calories and heat. Now, I’ve switched the routine. I do closer to a 7 pm-7 am fast, break my fast with a snack, soak, walk the dog, do my conscious breathing, and then have a late breakfast.
Another note. Apparently, you shouldn’t heat up too fast when you’re in a state of cold because you can induce a heart attack, so I follow up my soak with a cold shower. (I do turn on the overhead heater in the bathroom.) Initially, I dressed in layer after layer to warm up. As I became more accustomed to the cold–and especially after I switched to the soak-then-walk routine–I dressed in fewer layers because I heated up naturally by moving.
On Wim Hof’s Web site, he proposes the following physical and mental improvements to those who follow his method faithfully:
- Reduced stress level
- Greater cold tolerance
- Faster recovery
- Enhanced creativity
- Stronger immune system
- Increased energy
- Better sleep
- Heightened focus & determination
- Improved sports performance
- Increased willpower
I can’t draw a strong parallel between my Wim Hof work and these benefits, but I have experienced results. I like the method and plan to continue. That in itself says a lot because it’s not easy, especially when we’re talking going from a warm bed into 44 degree air and a 59 degree soak. So, yes, greater cold tolerance, heightened determination, and increased willpower, check, check, and check.
During COVID, I caught a cold. I blame a germy gas pump and then the dreaded face touch. I was disappointed to get sick, since I thought improving my immune system meant I wouldn’t have to worry about viruses. But I recovered faster than I ever have from any prior respiratory infection, so maybe my system is stronger. I’ll give a tentative win to Wim for that one.
One benefit he doesn’t mention is improved muscle tone. I’ve read shivering is actually a bit of a workout, and this seems to be true. In the evening I do 10-minutes of stretching. In the end, I stand up from a sitting position without using my hands. I used to be able to do it easily, but then it became a bit more of a challenge. Now, it’s getting easier again. I attribute it to stronger leg muscles.
On the negative side, I gained 10 pounds. Part of this might have been COVID stress, although I didn’t eat my way through the first half of the pandemic. I surmise most of the weight gain came from excessive post-soak calories. In other words, I ate more because I felt like I could afford to with all of the calories burned through shivering. Mistake. Now that I’m past the first months and I lived through my winter soaks, I’m optimistic I can both drop the extra pounds and not pick up new ones next season.
Some areas in which I hoped to see improvement but haven’t include arthritis that developed in my hands a few months ago, and a case of restless leg syndrome that has dogged me for years. My sleep has been iffy for a decade or so, and the method hasn’t improved it. I’ve been getting “migraine adjacent” headaches for years. For a period of about two months, when I was in the midst of the coldest soaks, they disappeared. Now, they’re back. I’ll continue to monitor this.
As I’m wrapping things up, a caveat: This post in no way offers medical advice; I’m only sharing with you my experience. If you want to take up cold water soaks, don’t assume your experience will be the same as mine. I recommend you proceed slowly, listen to your body, have a plan for a medical emergency should one arise, and, of course, coordination with a doctor is always a good move.
Now, a final anecdote: before I realized I could use the spa as a “cold lake,” I did the cold shower method. One night, after getting a piece of sad news, I was feeling low. I reluctantly stepped into the cold water and almost immediately, started hopping from foot to foot dodging the frigid stream. Then, I started laughing. My mood transformed instantly. I’m not saying it’s a cure for serious depression, but if you’re feeling a little blue it’s worth a try.
Can’t hurt, might help.