How Ice Baths Could Change Your Life
A roundtable discussion with expert instructors of the Wim Hof Method
A decade ago, after reading The Four-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, I started experimenting with cold exposure and other exciting new habits. Nearly every day, I would eat a slice of ham covered in cayenne pepper, then spend ten minutes shivering under a cold shower.
As it happened, I lost about 20 pounds in 2 months. Unfortunately, I can’t say that was due to the cold showers — I was also exercising heavily, and most importantly, following a serious fat loss diet for the first time in my life.
But in the last ten years, the idea of using cold temperatures to burn fat has only gotten more popular. And there’s at least some scientific evidence to support it: studies show that cold temperatures can increase your metabolic rate.
At the same time, however, cold temperatures seem to increase appetite — meaning that in order to truly experience the fat loss benefits, you’d need to take steps to avoid compensatory overeating.
Other effects of cold exposure are becoming apparent. Cold temperatures reduce inflammation and suppress immune function, which can be good or bad depending on timing and circumstances. That is, it’s probably good for most people most of the time, especially if you have autoimmune problems, but bad if you’re sick and need your immune system working in high gear.
While one early study indicated that cold temperatures might increase testosterone levels in men, the preponderance of evidence no longer seems to support that cold exposure directly increases testosterone. In the long run, it might still indirectly increase testosterone, at least in men, by aiding in fat loss.
The most prominent advocate of cold exposure as a health practice is Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete popularly known as “The Iceman.” His controversial Wim Hof Method combines cold temperatures with meditation and breathing exercises. According to Hof, his training methods aid with sleep, willpower, sports performance, stress, creativity, and the immune system, among other things.
Testimonials on his site claim that the method has helped people improve symptoms of chronic illnesses, such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. As amazing as that sounds, there is at least a theoretical basis for it, given that these are autoimmune diseases.
To learn more about the method and the science behind it, I invited four Wim Hof Method instructors to share their thoughts and experiences.
From summiting mountains in sub-zero temperatures wearing only shorts to better handling the daily stress of being a father and owning two start-up businesses, breathwork has been the catalyst for Reis to find his inner strength and hone in on his passions.
By studying with some of the leaders in the field like Wim Hof, Dan Brule, and Brian Mackenzie, Reis has uncovered progressive yet simple tools to help upgrade your life and make a deep mind-body connection. You can find him at weareboundless.life or @reis on Instagram.
Diana is the founder and director of Pacific Ashtanga Yoga Shala in Dana Point, CA, as well as a certified Wim Hof Method instructor. She has a Masters degree in psychology, lectures at Chapman University, and is a guest editor for the Orange County Register.
Farid is the creator and owner of e-Motion Training in Los Angeles, a unique, conscious, and holistic method of personal training. His training philosophy is to bring the mind, body, and spirit in balance as one using the most effective modalities — while empowering clients through conscious learning, feeling and (re)programming.
Danielle is a certified yoga teacher and is one of the first women in the U.S. to be certified as a Wim Hof Method instructor. Yoga, breathwork, meditation, and the ice are four tools that she credits with dramatically improving her health and quality of life.
What exactly is the Wim Hof Method and what are its benefits?
Diana: Wim Hof Method is a combination of 3 practices: Breath, cold exposure, and meditation. The daily practice strengthens the immune system, cardiovascular system, and the autonomic envious system.
Danielle: The Wim Hof Method was developed by a Dutchman named Wim Hof and the method is defined by three parts: mindset, breathwork, and cold exposure. In practice, we are focusing the mind, power breathing (usually five rounds of 30 deep and fast breaths with a period of retention after each round), and sitting in an ice bath for two to three minutes.
The method is designed to promote robust and vibrant health, and these are the three benefits I like to highlight:
- Develops and strengthens the nervous system: Getting in the ice is a practice that helps you learn to regulate your reaction to challenging situations. It’s about learning to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.
- Decreases inflammation: Exposure to the cold increases cortisol, which is a stress hormone that decreases inflammation. Inflammation is how the immune system responds to foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, and
this response is crucial to our survival, but it can also be excessive — eg. flu symptoms like headache, fever, fatigue, and muscle pain are all symptoms of inflammation. So, limiting this response improves the outcome of sickness. Getting in the ice has also shown positive results for people suffering from auto-immune diseases, which are the consequence of an overactive immune system that is triggering an inflammatory response when there are no foreign invaders present.
- Improves circulation and energy: You have 125,000 km of blood vessels in your body, which is enough to circle the globe three times, and that road network supplies trillions of cells with oxygen and nutrition. When you get in the cold water, your blood vessels constrict. When you get out, they dilate — so applying pressure like this to close and open your blood vessels helps to strengthen your vasculature, just like any other muscle in your body. Strengthening your vasculature improves the circulation of your blood, which means your cells are getting more oxygen and nutrition, which improves your energy.
Farid: Wim Hof Method is a beautifully simple, yet deep and powerful technique that brings about many positive changes in every major aspect of life. What’s special about this technique is the scientific studies and evidence of its effectiveness and applications:
- Build incredible mindset and focus
- Face fears, traumas, and resistance accumulated throughout life
- Manage stress and anxiety
- Increase energy
- Feel amazing (through changes in biochemistry as well as changes in mindset)
- Improved physical recovery from DOMS/injuries
- Decrease inflammation for up to 24 hours naturally
- Natural “pain medication”
- Improve cold tolerance and temperature changes
- Strengthen the immune system
- Face and heal emotional traumas
- Connect and feel
- Improve sleep
- Shows great promise and improvement in many, if not all forms of auto-immune issues
Reis: The Wim Hof Method is a powerful practice that is characterized by 3 main pillars — breathwork, cold exposure, and mindset. The beauty of it is the simplicity and effectiveness of the practice. Literally anyone can do it and will feel some immediate effects.
The benefits are increased energy, focus, and willpower, as well as improved athletic performance, reduced stress levels, and a strong immune system. As Wim would say, you have the right to be happy, strong, and healthy, and this a pathway to feeling all 3.
How did you get started teaching the Wim Hof Method?
Reis: Since I was 15 years old, surfing has been my go-to for staying centered and connected. It is where I am able to get away, be in nature, and really focus on the present moment. As a father of two beautiful girls and of two start-up businesses (Social Supply Co & MANDA), my surf time was declining and I was really looking for a new way to connect to those feelings.
I had heard about Wim via various podcasts I listen to and began seeing him pop up in the surf community on social media more and more. I then heard him again on the Rich Roll podcast. For whatever reason, the timing for listening was right and something he said just hit me.
I thought to myself, “I’ve got to see what this is all about.” I went home and told my wife about it, and she said she was just talking to a friend of ours who had been practicing the breathing for a while. I called him and he agreed to come over and run me through a session. I was blown away.
From there, I dove in headfirst. I did his 10-week course in 10 days and was starving for more. I ended up signing up for a workshop in LA, which was taught by a guy named Kasper van der Meulen — who, little did I know, was the one who taught all the teachers. Since I had only learned via the online course, which at the time was a bit vague, I wanted some hands-on instruction.
I really connected with Kasper and he invited me to go on one of his expeditions to Poland. I signed up immediately. That trip was probably one of the most transformational experiences of my life. I tell everyone that on the trip is really where I learned to love myself again. Seeing that it was such an impactful trip, I felt like I HAD TO teach this to other people. So as soon as I got home, I signed up for the teacher training.
That was another amazing experience in itself. Since getting certified, I’ve been teaching workshops, private training, one-on-ones, and corporate training as well. There is a pretty amazing community of Hoffers now in North County San Diego, which is incredible. Teaching the method has one of the most fulfilling things that I’ve done with my time.
Diana: I began private breathwork with Brian Mackenzie. Brian introduced me to Wim Hof and was able to help me enroll in the first Wim Hof American Academy. 3 years ago, I studied, trained, and completed my testing and training with Wim in Colorado. The instructors are tested and recertified annually.
Farid: About 4 years ago I was in Poland, closing off the week of training with Wim, and we had what we refer to as “DMT breathing,” aka “Holotropic Breathwork”, a type of deep breathing practice that lives up to and beyond its labels.
Make a long story short, I grew up never knowing my mother, and I never understood the trauma and effects this had on my life from the day I was born — and on the relationships with girlfriends as an adult. During this breathing session, I went deep into the crevices of my subconscious mind.
Having felt abandonment, deep, guttural, as a feeling as an infant… and then releasing that feeling without thinking or effort… the liberation, freedom, lightness, and emptiness I was after the session blew away everything I thought I knew. At that moment, I felt moved to take this healing to the world… and that’s when I told the WHM crew I wanted to deepen my practice and be an instructor.
And I did, for two years until they rolled out an official training program for instructors in which I became amongst the first 25 Certified WHM Instructors in the USA, and 1 of 2 in Southern CA.
Danielle: I’ll be totally honest — the method caught my attention because of the cute guys practicing it — ha! I was following a few of them on Instagram and noticed they were getting into ice baths every weekend and I thought, that’s weird… what’s that about? So, I signed up for a Wim Hof Method workshop.
During the workshop, I felt moved by Wim’s personal story, and was impressed with the science and research that backs the method; the breathwork felt like a revelation, and I got into the ice! The first time was a shock and it was hard to get my breathing under control, but when I got out, I felt so alive and invigorated, and proud of myself for doing it!
I also noticed a big improvement in my energy and attitude the following week, and I realized there was something more interesting going on than just the cute guys ;)
I was practicing for about nine months and felt my health increasing — I wasn’t getting sick, I felt stronger and generally happier — so I decided I wanted to learn to teach the method so I could share it with other people. I went to the Netherlands last September and then Poland this past February for training, and got my certification.
What benefits have your clients personally seen from practicing the method? How often do they practice it to get those benefits?
Danielle: Clients have reported everything from simply having more energy and feeling more confident to less creaky hip/knee/ankle joints which makes their daily runs more enjoyable, to a significant lessening of pain caused by a condition called neuropathy.
I’ve received positive feedback from clients after just the first session, and I recommend making the WHM part of your fitness routine and practicing a few times per week. Ice baths are not easily accessible to most people — but everyone can practice the breathwork at home and cold showers are a less intense way to get a lot of the same benefits.
Reis: Well, there is a laundry list of feedback that I’ve received from my clients. I’d say one of the most impressive things I hear over and over again from people who practice consistently (daily breathwork and weekly cold exposure) is how much stronger their immune system has become and that they are rarely getting sick anymore.
On top of that, a nervous system reset often occurs, where people who were typically living in their sympathetic nervous system all the time are able to feel some relief and tap into the opposite end of the spectrum. Because modern life is go-go-go, we don’t really ever shift into a resting state. By practicing the method, we are training both ends of the spectrum, and our bodies begin to remember how to go back into the parasympathetic state.
A few more common reports of change are around inflammation and pain relief for ailments that have been bothering a client for a long time. Both the breathing and cold help with this. The mental clarity also comes into play often. The breathing really puts us in the meditative state. The mind clears out, and we are left feeling amazing.
The ice bath also helps with this because you have to be fully present in the cold. It is sort of a mirror for life. It is difficult, for sure, but you learn to love it.
Farid: Breathing practice for entering meditation easier, personal insight, improving mindset, focus, and clarity.
Most love the ice bath for these reasons: how they feel afterward — everything from energy, mood, and pain to emotional release. Recovery from soreness and injury is very common. I have guys (and gals), trainers, athletes, business folks, and yogis alike that will come do my Meditation and Cryotherapy Sundays at 11 a.m., it’s a new religion ;)
Diana: Decrease in chronic back pain and, decrease in depression, improved performance, quicker recovery, decrease in arthritic pain, longer breath retention. While in high altitudes — no altitude sickness, increased stamina, mood elevation, increased energy, better sleep, decrease in symptoms of autoimmune diseases, sick less often! Daily: breath practice and cold showers (ice bath once or twice a week for full benefits).
How much does cold exposure aid fat loss?
Danielle: Exposure to water at 68°F doubles the metabolic rate and at 57°F it quadruples. And an ice bath is far colder than that! The breathing exercises also help — 70% of the toxins in the body are removed through the lungs — so the breathwork quickly moves waste out, which therefore optimizes the functions of the body and increases energy.
Diana: The method increases brown fat activation — but it is different for everyone. I have had students lose weight, especially if they commit to ice baths four times a week.
Farid: This depends on a few factors:
- Air or water that’s providing the cold exposure (two vastly different mediums; air would take a significantly longer time for similar effects compared to cold water, hours vs. minutes)
- The temperature of air or water (the lower the temperature, the less time and more powerful the effects on fat loss… below 60 F (water) is the maximum temperature to start the gain train of cold exposure)
- Duration of cold exposure — this varies quite a bit depending on the above two I mentioned: two minutes in my ice jacuzzi, I estimate, would have the same fat loss effects as close to two hours at 60 F water of swimming pools and cold showers in Los Angeles.
- Frequency — how many days per week are you doing the cold exposure? Although it’s hard to quantify this, if you did 3 sessions per week in our jacuzzi, each from 2–5 minutes, it’s been my experience that the fat loss results would be significant. I’d estimate based on my own body and what I can gather from clients… up to 2 percent with that frequency and intensity.
Reis: Cold exposure can definitely aid in fat loss. I am no scientist, but from my understanding, by training with the cold, we can begin to activate brown adipose tissue (or brown fat) in our bodies. Brown fat is a hyper concentration of mitochondria (the energy producers in our cells) that grows in our backs, along our shoulder blades, down our spine, and around our kidneys to help protect our vital organs.
Over time, we have adapted away from having brown fat because of modern life amenities like temperature controlled rooms, clothing, etc. But it has now been shown that we can begin to re-stimulate it by training in the cold. The cool thing about brown fat is that it increases metabolic activity and in particular metabolizes white fat, hence we can lose weight by consistency training in the cold.
When I was in Poland for the first time, I lost eight pounds, despite eating more food than I normally eat. I typically eat two meals per day, but since we were outside in the cold a good amount of time and swimming in freezing rivers, I was so hungry and ate literally two plates of food at mealtime, three times per day. It was pretty wild considering I’ve been the same weight for years.
How much do you find that it improves productivity or related capabilities like concentration or energy level?
Farid: Immensely. Although this can vary because if you don’t know how to hone in and use all that energy that is released… you can bounce off the walls. This is where the breathing is very helpful in bringing that vision, focus, and energy into play. One can become very productive, focused, and creative when blockages, resistance, fear, and doubt are removed.
Diana: Excellent for concentration — more people are using the method to improve meditation.
Danielle: The Wim Hof Method increases the health of the whole system — mind, body, and soul. So, energy, focus, and productivity will naturally increase as well. I always feel the best about myself and what I’m doing when I’m practicing regularly.
Reis: The breath is the most efficient way to increase energy production. You can think of it sort of like a gas pedal. Speed up the breath, and energy goes up. Slow down the breath, and you become more relaxed. So using those principles we can use our breath to change our state, depending on where we want to go.
Nowadays, I often find myself doing a couple of quick rounds of breathing instead of going for that afternoon coffee. It is a sweet little trick and only takes a couple of minutes.
What about stress — how exactly does the Wim Hof Method fight stress?
Farid: The short answer is by changing mindset, and giving one conscious control over the nervous system’s response to stress and fear. There are also feel-good hormones and chemicals that are released in the body by doing the breathing and the cold exposure multiplies some of these effects. I’ll leave the science part for your readers to research.
Facing fear, and sitting in patience, following your breath as you sit in freezing water will empower you to control your fear and stress response both consciously and subconsciously over time.
Diana: It strengthens your autonomic nervous system and strengthens your vagal tone (vagus nerve) so that you are better able to modulate naturally between your sympathetic NS to your parasympathetic NS. consequentially — makes you a more loving and compassionate person. Wim is all about the love!
Reis: Because we are practicing the method in a controlled environment, like a cold shower or ice bath, we can really work with things like stress. With the cold shower or ice bath, we are limiting any outside variables that we can’t control. It is literally just you and some cold water. It isn’t like going out into raw nature and having to deal with extreme elements that are out of our control, like weather or other unknowns.
When you get into the cold, you are immediately hit with the fight or flight response. Your heart rate goes up, you lose control of your breath, and everything in you says “get me out of here.” But instead of bailing, we turn inward and focus on slowing the breath down, and before you know it, the panic subsides and you can sit in there relatively comfortably.
That is really what it is all about. We trigger a very primitive response that we really don’t have control over, but instead of letting it take over, we use the tools to deal with it on our own terms.
By practicing in this way, we are rewiring our brain to then deal with the stress that comes to us in daily life that we do not have control over. As they say, how you do anything is how you do everything. So if you can relax into a stressful situation that you choose, like an ice bath, you will, in turn, be training yourself to deal with a stressful situation that you don’t have control over.
Danielle: One of my favorite quotes comes from the philosopher and psychologist, William James, and I think it captures the essence
of the WHM: “Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never push through the obstruction.”
By pushing ourselves through the breathwork and the ice, we are pushing through our perceived limitations, through those self-imposed mental constructs that keep us thinking small, that keep us thinking we can’t do it. Once we push through, we realize a strength that enables us to face life’s challenges with more ease and power.
The method builds the mental muscle needed to carry yourself calmly through stressful situations. Change and stress are a constant in life, and the WHM provides tools to strengthen your ability to meet those challenges successfully — without losing your peace, your perspective and your sense of humor.
I’ve read that brown fat is more concentrated in the neck, shoulders and upper back. Should people target their cold exposure to those areas to maximize fat loss?
Reis: Yes, brown fat runs along the shoulders, down the spine, and around the kidneys on the back. The body innately knows how to keep itself safe so in this case, the location of the brown fat is to protect our vital organs.
But the actual cold exposure doesn’t necessarily need to be targeted in only those areas. In fact, it is best to engage the entire body in the cold. By submerging the whole body into the cold, your system gets the message that it needs to shift into a different mode. If you are only part of the way in, the body can get confused, making it actually a bit harder.
Perhaps what you are referring to when talking about concentrating the cold exposure in those areas is how to actually activate the brown fat. The actual cold exposure is just the start. But it has been shown that muscle tension is where we begin to activate the brown fat. Typically, we instruct people to sit down after getting out of the cold (for safety) and flex their back muscles with the attention of their mind fixed on those areas.
Diana: No — cold ice baths, natural river, lake ocean, and ice tub have a similar benefit to brown fat activation. No need to target a spot or location in the body.
Supposedly, women have more brown fat than men — do you find that cold exposure is more effective at burning fat for women?
Reis: I don’t have any insights on the difference between men and women in relationship to brown fat and fat loss.
Diana: No; it’s very individualized and not gender-specific
Can you explain how breathing works with this method?
Reis: First and foremost is safety. Folks who have heart problems, who are epileptic, or pregnant are advised not to practice the method. It is always best to consult your doctor. Additionally, this is never to be done in the water or while operating a vehicle (bike included) and always in a safe place (either sitting or lying down).
The breathing technique is fairly simple. You will take 30–40 deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. There is no force involved. Your breath in will start at the belly, drawing up into the chest, and pulling into the head. The exhale is a simple letting go without pushing the air fully out. After the final breath, you will exhale and hold the breath.
Most people are used to holding their breath on the inhale, so this might seem a bit foreign. But as you go, you’ll see how easy it actually is. When you feel the urge to breathe (your body will give you the signal), you take a deep breath in and hold it at the top for 15 seconds. We call this the recovery breath. It feels quite nice. Then you let it go and start breathing again.
These three parts are considered one round. Typically someone practicing will do 3–5 rounds.
Studies show that cold temperatures cause increases in appetite to compensate for the increase in caloric expenditure — what should people do to avoid compensatory overeating when using cold to aid weight loss?
Reis: Getting into the cold will get the metabolism firing, which can certainly make you hungry. But eating habits are not a part of what we teach with the Wim Hof Method. In my experience, it is always best to listen to the body. If it is telling you it needs more fuel, then give it what it needs. In the end, if you find yourself overeating, it really comes down to self-control.
Diana: I have honestly not encountered this problem. most folks I work with have enjoyed a bit of weight loss with the other benefits of the cold. I have not worked with someone who only did the method to lose weight.
Should people start out using water that’s only slightly cold, or just dive right in with ice water right away?
Diana: Gradual cold exposure! Very important. Do not start with long cold exposure or extremely cold temperatures. Start short exposures and higher temperatures, i.e. cold showers.
Reis: If you are training on your own without the supervision of a certified instructor, it is best to start with a cold shower. You can take your warm shower as you normally would and just before you are ready to get out, turn the hot off and stand under the cold water for 30 seconds.
The beauty of that is the contrast between the warm and cold can make it feel bit more intense without the need for ice. From there, you can build it up to one minute, two minutes, etc. Eventually, if you feel like you are ready for more, you can attempt the ice bath.
I see that cold exposure can suppress the immune system — how much is too much in the regard?
Reis: You have to listen to the body. I used to get in the ice bath every day, but as my practice has evolved, I typically am going into the ice 2–3 times per week. The studies have shown the effects of cold exposure last 6 days, so there is not necessarily a need to do it every single day. But for the days I am not going in the ice, I do, however, usually end every shower with cold water.
Is there an ideal time of day to practice the Wim Hof method?
Reis: I typically like to start my day with a morning practice. It really sets the tone for everything to follow. I’d also recommend doing it on an empty stomach. This allows the body to really maximize everything because it is not busy digesting.
But with that said, there is no bad time to practice. I find in the mornings, I am a bit more in my head because the checklist for the day starts firing off. But after the first round of breathing, I usually let go and can drop in. However, in the evenings, I find that my mind and body are much more willing to let go. I tend to go deeper in my sessions that are later in the day.
Diana: Morning, when the stomach is completely empty.
What exactly is the optimal mindset for practicing this method?
Diana: Change! That we can change our own health. Get back to nature and our own nature. We are living in comfort. We live in boxes (climate controlled). Get out of the box and back to nature — reconnect to your own nature. Access your own medicine cabinet.
Reis: First and foremost, your mindset should be of focus. If you are not focused, the practice becomes more difficult on a number of levels. Additionally, you should go into your practice with a curiosity around what is happening in the body. Be open to observing the what the mind and body are doing. This will allow you to learn about yourself.
You also need to be determined. These practices can bring up a lot of stuff so if you go into it with any doubt, you might not make it to the end. You also need to bring a sense of patience and dedication. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Although these practices are powerful and you may feel some immediate effects, it is all about the long game. It is easy to do it once or twice but the real power comes when you can integrate it into your life as a daily practice.
How to Try This for Yourself
First off, depending on where you live, you could take a class with a Wim Hof Method instructor in your area.
Otherwise, if you want to try this for yourself, follow these steps:
1. Cold showers
Take a cold shower for 5–10 minutes every night. Since the cold can have a sedating effect, this is best done before bed. To begin with, make the water just cold enough to reach your shivering threshold. Gradually make it colder as your tolerance increases.
If you reach a point where cold showers feel fairly easy, you can progress to cold baths — without ice. Avoid ice baths unless you have someone watching you, as there’s always a chance that the cold will cause you to pass out.
Start meditating. Initially, this can be for as little as five minutes a day. Gradually progress to 20-minute sessions.
Practice consciously adjusting the pace and depth of your breathing. Notice how breathing faster can increase your energy level, while slow, deep breathing calms you down.