Cold showers. They’re so hot right now. (See what I did there?)
There is an array of health benefits that result from exposure to temperatures far outside of our preferred range of 68-72 degrees. From improved circulation, to improved stress response, and increased metabolism – the health benefits of concentrated exposure to cold temperatures, in specific, are plentiful. But to be honest, there’s an entirely different reason why I’ve incorporated cold showers into my daily ritual. First, let’s discuss why someone might incorporate cold exposure to their lifestyle.
Using Exposure to Extremes to Calibrate (and Fortify) Homeostasis
If your body is perpetually in a state of “non-stress”, it gradually deteriorates in its ability to efficiently respond to a “stressor”. Stress doesn’t just have to be uncomfortable temperature. This principle of “stress-encounter” > “stress-response” > “future improved response to stress” is applicable in a variety of situations, ranging from exercise, temperature exposure, high-pressure work environment, public speaking, and the list goes on.
Consider this: If you stop exercising and lifting weights (exposure to physical stress) your physiological ability to perform and respond during said stress or to recover from the stress decreases. Expose yourself to the anxiety-inducing experience of public speaking frequently? Ta-da! Your body’s ability to maintain a calm, cool, collected composure is easier after repeated exposure. Do you periodically have big deadlines at work? You’re going to train your body to appropriately respond to chaos and produce excellent work in spite of difficult timelines.
The same holds true with temperature. Many people today spend a disproportionate amount of time in climate-controlled environments (home/office/car/globo-gyms). Your body has specific health functions and stress responses that it executes when exposed to temperature extremes (hot and cold). In an effort to maintain a constant state of “comfortable” temperature, we’ve inadvertently decreased our body’s ability to calibrate a healthy homeostasis (balance within the body) and allostasis (the processes the body executes to achieve homeostasis).
Health Benefits of Exposure to Cold
To quickly review, some of the health benefits resulting from cold shower routines or concentrated time spent in cold (ocean/ice bath/outdoors, etc.) are vast and include:
- improved hormonal activity (nervous system and metabolic response)
- improved circulation (contrast of vasoconstriction and dilation)
- reduced stress & improved mood (autonomic nervous system response and release of neurotransmitters)
- skin rejuvenation (less oil lost compared to hot water)
- detoxification of the body (changes in vasoconstriction/vasodilation)
- increased metabolism (increased metabolic rate and stimulation of brown adipose tissue)
- improved immune system support (release of white blood cells in response to increased metabolic rate)
The Culture of Cooling Thyself
The science of cold exposure is *cool*, but there’s actually much more information on the cultural incorporation of cold exposure throughout history than anything else – from ancient Greeks finishing hot baths with a plunge into a cold bath, to the Finnish practice of “avantouinti” or ice hole swimming. There are accounts of Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson (amongst others) utilizing daily cold baths to combat depression and maintain health. From my personal experience, this past Spring, I took a trip to Iceland. Soaking in hot, natural springs is a mainstay tradition in their culture. Often, the springs were located near the ocean, and I frequently saw older Icelanders going for icy ocean swims around the bay with one another (no wetsuits) then strolling over to the hot springs for a soak, before repeating the process multiple times. I tried to keep up, but I could only manage a minute or two in the ocean. They made it look easy!
Being in Control of That Voice
So, if not for the health benefits, what has inspired me to continue my morning ritual of cold-showering for nine months? Essentially, it’s transcended from an activity in search of physical health, to a daily exercise in controlling one’s actions, despite circumstances. My two to three-minute cold shower has literally changed how I look at a lot of things. Let me explain.
I am addicted to the ‘win’ I get upon feeling my own resistance, and choosing action in spite of it. It would be easy to rationalize reasons why I don’t need to/have time to/want to take a cold shower. But every morning I consciously decide to take action to overcome those rationalizing behaviors.
No one helps me. No one cheers me on. No one pats me on the back. Just me and the voice inside my brain. Some days are harder than others. Cold water rarely sounds THAT nice. But if you can willingly place discomfort in your path and act accordingly, imagine the strength to endure that you will foster in other areas of your life?
How many victories are within your grasp daily?
- reading a chapter instead of watching an episode
- finishing the report instead of checking the social media
- choosing the grapes instead of the chocolate
- making the coffee instead of buying the expensive latte
- taking the high road when you really want to sink to their level
Cold water never becomes “not cold”. Exercising never becomes “not hard”. Life never stops presenting challenges. You simply get fitter, more determined, and more acclimated to overcoming the difficult. Or you don’t. The stoics called it the Inner Citadel – “the fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.”
Build the behavior you want. Every action and decision is a brick.
- “The Obstacle is the Way: The timeless art of turning trials into triumph”. Ryan Holiday
By Kirsten Ahrendt from CrossFit Invictus