Cold Exposure

About six weeks ago Alanna and I watched a short documentary about Wim Hof. While it’s clear that Wim is considerably more open to scientific scrutiny than most people who claim to have developed new ways to confer tremendous health benefits, I have not been able to find much evidence for his claims about the efficacy of hyperventilation to promote well-being. But, as someone who lives in a place with real winter, I was blown away by his cold tolerance, which has been well documented, and by his claims that it is a learnable skill.

I imagine most people have noticed the difference between the first cool day of the fall and the first warm day of the spring. Both might be 50 degrees and sunny, but after the heat of summer the former feels freezing, while the cold of winter makes the latter downright balmy. Despite being aware of this phenomenon, I had never considered trying to increase my ability to withstand the temperature swings in any sort of systematic way.

And I didn’t go about it in a rigorous way. First I started turning my shower to cold for a few seconds every day. Then I decided to wear shorts when I took Oban out before bed. I never set up any sort of schedule, but the duration and severity of the cold exposure naturally increased to the point that I’ve been taking exclusively cold showers (our water comes from a spring development, and it leaves the tap at about 40 degrees) and hanging around outside in a bathing suit.

I don’t know if it’s true about everyone, but I’m not very good at comparing states across time. So it is difficult to know how much my tolerance to cold has actually increased as a result of all this. Obviously, since there’s only one of me, there’s no way to have a real control, so I enlisted the next best thing, meaning I roped my brother into suffering for the sake of science.

I suffered less than Ed, despite staying out more that twice as long as he did, though Oban is clearly impervious to the cold in a way I will never be. I was quite chilly when I went inside, but my sense is that my body can warm itself up faster than it could before. I do wonder, however, if there is any risk to dulling my response to cold. Is it simply that I am physically more prepared for it, but would still recognize symptoms of incipient hypothermia or frostbite, or am I more likely to get dangerously frozen without realizing it?

This may be hard to believe, but I haven’t kept this up in an effort to prove anything in particular. It’s actually enjoyable. The first 20 seconds of splashing around in the stream or lying in the snow are still an unpleasant shock, though far less than they were at the beginning, but after that it’s really not bad. And the aftereffects feel quite similar to those of exercising, but even better. In other words, it’s strangely addictive.

Garth Brown

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