We break down the benefits of the Wim Hof method
As September sets in and summer comes to an end, the harrowing realization that winter is fast approaching affects the best of us. Dark skies and heavy clouds, the sun setting in the afternoon and lazily rising mid-morning, a bitter chill biting into our very bones – The winter blues seems unavoidable. Alas, there's a solution to chase our seasonal sadness away: Ice baths.
To face the cold of the coming months, we turn to this generation-spanning practice which boosts endorphins and boasts health benefits en masse. First emerging as a Scandinavian staple in the 19th century, the ice bath has seen a nordic renaissance. More than just a healthy habit, cold water swimming is now an institution, with celebrities, family, and friends alike embracing regular polar plunges.
But what is it about a mid-winter trip to the seaside that is so enticing? According to practitioners, the communal aspect of cold-water bathing is a big draw. It has become a popular team-building activity where groups gather in saunas, practice breathing techniques, take the plunge, and cheer each other on in a strive for social synergy. Though science is scarce, it seems as if cold water swimming not only heightens happiness but fosters a sense of community. And after a year of involuntary isolation due to a certain pandemic, community feels crucial to our well-being.
But what are the actual benefits of ice baths, and how do you safely go for a cold water swim?
Skepticism is part of the territory when it comes to the health and beauty benefits of ice baths. Although there’s a lack of clinical research, the anecdotal evidence of people achieving an instant glacial glow is overwhelming.
As someone who reluctantly and rarely finishes my showers with a splash of cold water, taking the leap to willingly submerge myself in ice feels like an insurmountable task of gargantuan proportions. But, when supermodels like Helena Christensen, Naomi Campbell, and Romee Strijd all take the plunge due to its alleged beauty benefits, I consider myself convinced to try it. A frosty dip in nature is said to increase skin and hair quality by constricting blood vessels, which temporarily tightens pores and reduces redness and inflammation.
Luckily there's a more accessible version if you can’t make it to the seaside; the spartan shower. Finishing off your wash with a cold rinse will help lock in moisture while tightening the cuticles in your scalp to anchor your hair, reducing hair loss.
And these advantages are just the skin-deep tip of the iceberg. The list of benefits – increased metabolism, lowered blood pressure, migraine relief – goes on and on.
"Fully in, let it go" is the mindful mantra meant to help Wim Hof enthusiast control their breaths and bodies. Repeated in countless online courses, various YouTube videos, and a specially dedicated The Goop Lab episode, the simple technique effectively helps combat anxiety and stress. It leaves the practitioner light-headed, with a tingling sensation, feeling euphorically invincible after their body-shocking mid-winter dip.
It might not seem like it, but there’s a process to the madness. Without the proper technique, a human wouldn't last long in freezing water, going into shock and involuntarily gasping for breath.
So how do you do it? Wim Hof, ’The iceman’ and self-proclaimed ’ Crazy Dutch,’ is a living example of someone who has mastered mind over matter. The Goop-approved guru, seemingly unfazed by the cold, has developed a method that allows him to stay submerged in ice water for two hours and climb Mount Everest barefoot, wearing nothing but shorts.
The Wim Hof Method encompasses a combination of breathing into the belly and the chest, expanding the breath to the brim, and then letting the air go without completely emptying the lungs. It's a gradual practice, starting slow and increasing the pace until you reach controlled hyperventilation. Repeated 30 times in a row, it brings on a light-headed feeling and a tingling in the hands and feet - Which should be expected. The goal is to intensify these sensations through practice.
’Horse stance’ is another favorite among ice bath enthusiasts and favored by Hof. In a fluid movement, reminiscent of tai chi and yoga, the practitioner takes a wide stance and moves his or her hands across their body in a pushing motion while timing their breaths with the movement. Used right before taking the plunge, the horse stance helps the body better cope with the cold.
It doesn't require a lot of time in icy water to see the benefits. Beginners are advised to start with 10- to 30-second intervals, quickly getting in and out. For regular plungers, health care professionals recommend staying in the icy water for two minutes to get the full benefits.
However, spending too much time in an ice bath can have adverse consequences, and you should limit your time to 10 to 15 minutes. Be mindful; an ice bath causes the body to go into ’fight or flight' mode – depending on the temperature and amount of time spent immersed. Therefore it’s important to avoid them if you suffer from any heart condition, make sure that you’ve got someone else with you when going for a dip, and have an easy way to heat up after the experience.
Without a doubt, the euphoria felt after an ice bath is real. According to healthcare professionals, by activating the sympathetic nervous system, cold immersion can considerably increase endorphin levels in the bloodstream and the brain. Cold causes mitochondrial biogenesis in the body, sparking energy-generating mitochondria, resulting in a surge of energy, mental clarity, an improved mood, and a feeling of vitality. Considering the high density of cold receptors in the skin sending an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses, a dip in icy water literally shocks you into a sense of delight.
Hof’s scientific theory is that by deliberately putting the body into a temporary state of stress through controlled hyperventilated breathing and cold exposure, it’s possible to build a psychological and physiological resistance to stress stimuli in our environment. This results in feeling calmer and more in control of one's feelings, thoughts, and actions. Gradual exposure is another critical factor to the Wim Hof Method. By exercising the vascular system, a tolerance for the cold is slowly but surely built up over time.
Working our way up from cold showers to open ocean dips, this floe-breaking tradition exchanges a moment of discomfort for a myriad of promised perks – Which is why we will happily break the ice and take a polar plunge this winter.