Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof, otherwise known as The Iceman, is so hot right now. He has his own BBC series Freeze the Fear With Wim Hof; actor Joseph Fiennes is playing him in an upcoming movie about his life; and if you want to see him in the flesh you’ll be waiting a while as his upcoming retreats – which cost about $1000 a day without accommodation – are sold out.
It’s a warm change for Hof, whose first invigorating brush with cold came when he plunged into an icy Amsterdam canal as a 17-year-old. He was once seen as more circus act than mainstream sensation.
The methods of the ‘Iceman’ Wim Hof have become hot around the world.
Now he is responsible for a global trend in which fitness and health types fill backyard ice coolers to the brim, not to chill their stubbies, but to host ice bath sessions and workshops where participants do breathing exercises and sit, up to their necks in icy water, for a couple of minutes at a time.
The idea is that the shock of the cold stimulates the cardiovascular system, improving its function, enhancing circulation and the immune system, as well as reducing inflammation.
Hof estimates that, today, about a billion people around the world are following his method and using the cold to enhance their mental and physical health.
But why has the approach he’s been promoting for the last 40 years caught on now? At a time when we have more comforts than we have ever had historically, suddenly people are actively choosing to go into discomfort.
Sitting in the kitchen of his home, about 70 kilometres from Amsterdam, in a blue t-shirt and with an unkempt beard, the father of five excitedly tells me, semi-shouting, that he is trying for a sixth. His daily dose of cold is responsible for his energy and good health, he enthuses, flexing his biceps. “I am never, ever sick. I’m all great energy. I’m 63, and I’m stronger than people half my age.”
To Hof, the appeal of his method is three-fold: People experience the instant boost of energy; living in a world with too much comfort has dampened us both spiritually and physiologically; and the science has caught up with the practice.
“We don’t feel spirited,” says Hof, whose bestselling book, The Wim Hof Method has just been re-released in paperback.
He argues that too much time spent thinking instead of doing and too many comforts mean that there is less blood flow to parts of the brain, like the limbic system and the deep brain, which are connected to the strength of our immune system and cardiovascular system.
“We have weakened our physiology, which is connected to our brain. And the deeper brain gets less blood flow on a chronic basis, and it is resulting logically into stress and the deregulation of our immune system.”
The shock of the cold shower sparks an adrenaline spike and, when it is accompanied by breathing techniques to oppose the “fight or flight” response to the cold, it resets the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, Hof says.
“That’s why I say ‘cold shower a day keeps the doctor away’. Going out of the comfort zone in ice baths regularly brings the blood flow and the neural activity to the deepest parts of the brain.”
This doesn’t mean we have to live in discomfort, he stresses. Nor do we need to do what he has done and climb Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts, swim underneath ice for 66 meters, or sit in a container while covered with ice cubes for more than 112 minutes. “No, that was my soul search,” says Hof, whose wife and the mother of four of his children died by suicide in 1995. “But what came out of it, after scientific trials, is that simple techniques are able to activate our deeper physiology… And just by using the will, we can steer the deeper physiological mechanisms inside the body much better.”
And he adds, hands gesticulating: “Then you come alive, and then you feel energy.”
Wim Hof: Going to extremes.
Frank Marino is a professor of Applied Physiology at Charles Sturt University. He says the physiology is interesting. “That said, there simply isn’t enough evidence to conclude that the Wim Hof Method is something that should be practised.”
Marino adds that although some studies indicate that cold exposure might benefit the inflammatory system, there are reports of people dying from attempting the method.
Experts suggest checking with your doctor first and making sure you don’t swim in cold water alone. Hof says that, as with any acute stressful exercise, people have to start slowly. He suggests 15 seconds of cold at the end of your hot shower, then building up very slowly to two minutes. “If you go to two minutes, then that means you’ll get a full adaptation of your cardiovascular system.”
Professor Tony Blazevich from the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University, says cold triggers brown adipose tissue, increasing blood glucose uptake, “which might be helpful in people with diabetes or pre-diabetes, or those trying to improve their general health”.
He also says that repeated exposures to cold seem to improve immune function, but he adds:
“There’s still a lot of work to do to better understand the conditions under which cold stress might prove most effective, the optimal dosing required for success, whether it’s effective in all people or rather in those with lower immune function.”
One study of 3000 people in the Netherlands found that the duration mattered less than doing it at all. Those who took a daily cold shower of 30, 60 or 90 seconds for one month were 29 per cent less likely to take sick leave from work than those who had warm showers.
The same study found that those who had cold showers reported an increase in energy, while separate research suggests that the high density of cold receptors in the skin, means a cold shower can stimulate electrical impulses from those nerve endings to the brain, which could have an anti-depressive effect.
Still, as some researchers have pointed out, given the nature of the intervention, it is difficult to determine whether the benefits are the result of a placebo effect.
Hof, who is also an advocate of fasting and exercise to “reset within” is undeterred. He tells me, at his centre in The Netherlands, they are about to begin a trial using cold therapy with children who have cancer to see if it increases their white blood cells. He is also coming to Australia in November for brain scans with controversial neurosurgeon, Dr Charlie Teo, in the hope of demonstrating that his method willfully brings blood flow and neural activity into different parts of the brain.
Though there is mounting evidence that is promising, more is needed to go beyond the speculation and anecdotes. Hof, however, insists that the results speak for themselves. “Only now people are becoming receptive. And they go into the cold water, they do breathing, and they see quite incredible results… it’s spreading mouth-to-mouth because if something works, it just spreads.”
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