Cold exposure, or cryotherapy, for therapeutic purposes has been around for centuries – from treating fever to reducing pain, and supporting tissue damage. Hippocrates (aka the father of modern medicine) even quoted ‘the water can cure everything’. But with the advancements in research today, the benefits of cold exposure extend far beyond this historical perspective.
Cold exposure is an example of hormesis, which is referred to as ‘good stress’. We know that excessive stress can be harmful to our health, but this kind of acute stress can actually be beneficial. It’s switched on when the body is exposed to intermittent stressors, or whenever the body is being challenged in a healthy way, to help enhance resilience. Cold plunging is one of the most researched ways to induce hormetic stress and therefore, make the body more resilient! Similar to the way that exercise promotes the positive effects of stress, exposing yourself to the cold induces a spike in adrenaline that allows us to build a higher threshold tolerating this specific type of stress – which ultimately improves our overall resilience.
Repeat cold exposure after exercise may support mitochondrial biogenesis , which is the process in which new mitochondria are formed within cells. More mitochondria in the body means a greater increase in the production of ATP (energy), which provides a cascade of positive effects from greater aerobic performance and capacity, and the reduced risk of health complications.
The body is wired for survival, so when the body is exposed to increasingly hot or cold temperatures it activates mechanisms to keep you in homeostasis. When we’re exposed to cold environments or cold therapy, the body increases our thermogenic rate to offset the change in environment. In doing this, the body activates brown fat, which is a type of fat we carry that is packed full of mitochondria. Brown fat is metabolically active, and when it burns it begins the thermogenic process which burns calories. Because cold therapy activates brown fat, studies show that it may play a role in weight loss.
It’s important to note that there’s no one magic tool to promote weight loss, and that cold exposure alone will not result in dramatic changes in body composition. Combining cold exposure with the appropriate exercise, diet and lifestyle changes is what will make the greatest difference.
Strength and endurance
Neuroscientist, Andrew Huberman, has studied the benefits of cold therapy extensively, claiming that exposing ourselves to the cold in short-bursts can help take one’s exercise performance and recovery to the next level. A meta-analysis found that up to five minutes of cold water immersion has been shown to be a highly effective tool for recovery post high-intensity or endurance training. But for you to reap the strength, endurance and recovery benefits – timing is key. Cold exposure in the form of cold plunging (excluding cold showers) has been shown to limit hypertrophy, or muscle growing gains if it’s completed within 4 hours of training. So the key is to wait 6 to 8 hours (or more) after training to take the plunge.
For the best results, immerse the whole body in a bath of very cold or ice water for up to five minutes, leaving your head above water so you can breathe! Speaking of breathing, cold exposure can elicit a gasping reflex due to temperature shock, so focus on taking deep breaths during your session. Some people find it helpful to plunge to their favorite song, or one that helps them relax.
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How to implement cold exposure into your routine
We appreciate that plunging yourself into ice cold water isn’t an easy task to get into the habit of. But the good news is that it is possible to reap the same benefits by habit stacking cold exposure into your shower routine. In addition to being convenient and easily controlled, the benefits of exposing yourself to the cold via a cold shower are comparable to dunking yourself into an ice bath. Studies even show that exposure to the cold showers can even boost mood.
Start by switching between hot and cold for as long as you can to help get yourself used to bursts of cold exposure. Try to work up to 30 seconds of cold water, followed by 30 seconds of warm water.
Ending showers with cold
At the end of your usual warm shower, switch to the coldest setting for 30 seconds to one minute. Ending with cold is more of a challenge as the body needs to work harder to increase your temperature.
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