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What I Learned from 5 Years of Cold Showers (That I Didn’t After a Year)

Research shows it can increase focus and feel-good hormones by up to 530%.

Image by Fifaliana Joy from Pixabay

Four years ago, I wrote an article titled, “How to Get the Unquantifiable Benefits of Cold Showers,” which was wildly popular. It still gets over 200 views per day today. Whenever I read articles that purport to provide a lot of benefits after a short period (e.g., “I ran 5 miles for 30 days straight, here’s what happened!”), I always wonder what happened to those people after the article.

What happened after those 30 days? If it was so great, did they keep doing it? Were there negative side effects from sustained practice?

The reality TV show, “The Biggest Loser,” is a great example of how incredible short-term results can contrast greatly with long-term outcomes. Many of the winners of the show lose more weight on the show than some people can achieve in a lifetime. Yet, almost all of the winners never sustain that weight loss. Season one winner, Ryan Benson, claims that he regained 32 pounds in 5 days after the show simply by drinking water. The suggested reason is that along with drastic weight loss, the techniques used in the show also drastically reduce their base metabolic rates. I feel like people who are trying to learn how to lose weight from the show would want to know that. Maybe they wouldn’t want to model the weight loss in the show if it came with a disclaimer that said, “You will lose weight, but struggle even more with weight gain for the rest of your life.”

Another burning question I’ve always had is — do you gain that much more by doing something for 30 days or even a year versus 5 years? Is short-term or maybe even periodic effort sufficient? At least as it relates to cold showers, I’m happy to say I have an answer for you!

So, if you read my initial article and are curious about what happened after it, this is your official 5-year plus report. But first, I’d like to indulge the former scientist in me and give you an expansion of the science of cold water therapy.

(This article is just for informational purposes. Talk to your doctor before giving cold water therapy a try.)

An Expansion on the Science of Cold-Water Therapy

Some of the research brought up here is not necessarily newer relative to my first article but was simply not covered. Note that the research here is for both cold showers and full immersion. Here are some fun facts that align with what I’ve been experiencing for the last 5 years:

1. Increases focus and feel-good hormones by up to 530%

A study found that cold water therapy could increase plasma noradrenaline and dopamine concentrations up to 530% and 250%, respectively, while also decreasing cortisol levels by 17%.

Here’s why this is important to you — Noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter of the brain that plays an essential role in arousal, attention, cognitive function, and stress reactions. Dopamine aka the “Pleasure Hormone” is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for feelings of reward, pleasure, and attention. Cortisol, on the other hand, is responsible for regulating your stress response. High levels of cortisol are often correlated with chronic stress. The combined effects on multiple hormones show that cold showers are a potent tool in alleviating depression and improving your focus.

2. Allows you to train your mind to override your body

To me, this study represents one of the most exciting and motivating reasons to continue taking cold showers. Our traditional understanding of the body is that in situations of extreme cold or heat, our body creates an automatic response that our brain cannot override — leaving us at the complete mercy of the environment.

A group of scientists used brain imaging to show that Wim Hof, a renowned practitioner of cold exposure, had developed a higher-level control over his body’s automatic responses to cold through repeated and intentional cold exposure.

By activating the autonomic nervous system in a controlled environment for a limited amount of time through repeated cold-water exposure, we practice using our brains to override the short-term and transient ways the autonomic system regulates cold and instead teach our bodies a sustained way to overcome the stressor. The best part is that the scientists think that doesn't just apply to cold but to pain and stress as well.

3. Increases tolerance to environmental stress and free radicals

This study demonstrated that intensive and repeated short-term exposure to cold water creates an adaptive response to oxidative stress. The scientists showed that the antioxidative defense system (as measured by biochemicals in the blood) was increased in the study group compared to healthy individuals who were not exposed to cold water.

They postulate that this is a new molecular mechanism of increasing tolerance to environmental stress and free radicals that are all too abundant in our daily lives. Another study also found that repeated exposure to cold water had protective effects on the cardiovascular system.

The Unquantifiable Benefits of Cold Showers after 5 Years

Maybe you’re not one of those people who care that much about the science of cold showers. After all, they still sound like they would feel awful. So, let me tell you how it feels instead:

1. It gives you an instant, free, dopamine hit

At the height of the pandemic, I suspected that I — like many others — had many of the symptoms of dopamine dysfunction. I lacked motivation, had a really hard time focusing, became addicted to my phone, and just had a general malaise that was hard to shake. There were two things that worked consistently to pull me out of my funk — heart-racing exercise or a cold shower. But only one could work within one minute and with no exertion.

2. It flips the switch on procrastination every single time

Something I struggled with more since the pandemic than I had my entire life was procrastination. Before the pandemic, I relied heavily on my internal motivation to get things done. When that disappeared, I was stuck. I never did figure out why my internal motivation dipped so much but I did figure out how to override this problem. More on why relying on motivation doesn’t work at the end of the article.

I found that if I took a cold shower early in the day, it was as if the switch had been flipped and it made the rest of my day more focused and more energized. I procrastinated less for that entire day, not just immediately after. It was as though someone had broken the circuit. To this day, I still call it my circuit breaker.

3. It helps you understand that maintaining a habit takes a lot less energy than activating it

I strongly believe that one of the reasons most people give up on new habits is because they don’t understand this fundamental principle of life — it always takes far more emotional energy and willpower to establish a new habit than to maintain it. When they try something new, they think it will always feel this hard and it overwhelms them enough to give up.

Every time I start a new habit, I always remind myself how much harder cold showers felt in the first year versus the second year versus now. Each subsequent year is significantly easier. It motivates me to ride through the activation phase of any new endeavor.

4. It will show you that the dread in your mind is often worse than the act itself

Five years of taking cold showers have shown me that I’ve never once struggled as much once I’ve stepped into the shower as I had just thinking about it. Our thoughts and our feelings are not always our reality and yet we can waste months, years, and even decades dreading something and never taking action.

I’ve heard the phrase, “Do the hardest thing first” aka “Eat that frog” for years and have never been able to consistently implement it in my life because well…it’s hard. But several years after I started taking cold showers it changed. Now, every time I put something off because I dread it, I remind myself how I actually feel once I’ve actually stepped into the shower, and it motivates me to actually do the hard things first because I know it’s never as bad as I think it is.

5. It teaches you how to breathe through distress

Even as I write this, I realize how trite this advice sounds. But there is a reason why breathing techniques and literature is the hallmark of so many cultures. It’s because it plays a huge part in controlling our physiology AND most of us don’t think twice about it.

Do you need a cold shower to learn to breathe properly? No. But a cold shower does give you an easy and consistent way to create controlled stress that you can instantly practice breathing through and observe the effectiveness of your breathing. Having methods to calm your body through small stressors will prepare it to automatically know what to do when bigger stressors inevitably arrive.

New Tips for Staying In

A cold shower is showering with water colder than 70 degrees Fahrenheit or 21 degrees Celsius. The science seems to support that the colder you go, the more pronounced the benefits are. As for timing, there is evidence that even doing it daily for 30 seconds is sufficient to produce positive benefits.

It’s funny that something that literally requires you to do nothing can feel so difficult. But we are all so used to avoiding discomfort that it feels weird to confront it. I still strongly apply all the tips I mentioned in my original article but here are some new ones:

1. Counting in 30-second blocks

As I mentioned before, the mind is actually the biggest obstacle to taking cold showers. I had a hard a far harder time keeping my mind still than I did my body. So, I gave my mind something to do — which is to countdown from 30. After 30 seconds, I could rotate my body to a different position if I wanted to but for 30-second blocks, I would stand still and breathe. I previously recommended a podcast but I find counting is better as I can also sync my breath and really focus my mind.

2. Get a shower timer

I used to use an alarm and resisted getting a shower timer for the longest time. I even used my phone for a while until I realized I was regularly losing over 10 minutes because my phone distracted me. Trust me, get a timer. It’s cheap and has a disproportionate effect of increasing your motivation to stay in. Once it starts, there will be an inner drive in you to see it hit that number that you set out to do or maybe even exceed it.

3. Slow your breathing down

Yes, thousands of years of ancient wisdom are true. At the end of the day, controlling your breathing is the key to calming your body. When the cold water first hits me, my body responds every time by taking a sharp breath followed by rapid and shallow breathing. I literally have to tell myself to slow down. As soon as I slow my breath down, my entire body relaxes and it feels as if an alarm has been turned off.

4. Find your minimum

Exercise professionals often encourage their clients to not worry about the most optimum workout but instead find the one that they are most likely to stick to the most. The one you do the most frequently is the optimum one. The same is true for cold showers. When I first started, I routinely did 10-minute cold showers.

One reader pointed out that this was not very environmentally friendly — which I agree with. Also, I realized 10 minutes was sometimes a huge mental barrier to overcome. So, I played around with timing and realized that I could always convince myself to do a 3-minute cold shower. Setting this lower minimum meant that it took a lot less time to convince myself to step into the shower. I also often found myself staying longer than 3-minutes once I was in.

5. Cycle between hot and cold

If you really struggle to stay in for a few minutes straight, you could try cold water for 30-second or 1-minute intervals and cycle in hot water in between. This way, you could do three 1-minute blocks instead of a continuous 3-minute stretch. If you have access to a sauna at your local recreation center, you could cycle in and out of that as well. I have found that cycling between intense cold and intense hot water has also been especially helpful for muscle recovery. On days that I feel stiff and sore, it feels like the contrasting temperatures are literally causing blood to flush through my muscles. It’s a wonderful feeling.

The Key Takeaway After 5 Years Versus 1

In my last article, I jokingly asked, “Why the torture?”

Like most of the general population, that was how I viewed cold showers as well. In the first year, that changed. The word in my head transformed from torturous to empowering. It was empowering to know that I could override my emotions and will myself to do what my brain wanted.

But here’s the interesting thing — that only worked while I was motivated to stick to cold showers. We can almost always sustain motivation for something for a month, 6 months, or even a year but eventually as author Ryan Holiday says,

“Motivation doesn’t last.”

So, what do you do then?

I realized that I was like the overly strict parent that was telling my body to, “Do what I say whether you like it or not.” And it works just as well as one would expect. It works for a year but maybe not a lifetime. Then, what does?

Over the last four years, I’ve learned that to sustain anything long-term, we cannot rely on brute willpower or extrinsic benefits, we must find intrinsic drivers. Yes, we can use the power of habits and extrinsic motivations in parallel, but they are not sufficient on their own.

Fortunately for me (and for you), though activating a habit requires my mind to force my body to do something, my body can actually take over once we move to the maintenance phase. I started noticing that my body has become addicted to the jolt of energy it gets from a cold shower and all I need to do was to emphasize it more.

Today, when I struggle to step into the shower, I remind my body of the deliciously energized feeling I feel during a cold shower or the moment I surrender completely to the present situation. I recall the feelings of focus, calm, and energy instead of the facts of the benefits to me. I tell myself how good it feels during and after.

And that has made all the difference. In fact, it has worked so well that I’ve been having cold showers twice a day.

More importantly, this lesson on not relying on my willpower and finding the intrinsic joy of a task has changed how I think about all the tasks I “should” do in life. What I need isn’t an accountability coach, an expensive device, a 30-day program, or an app. What I need is to find a way to enjoy the experience of anything I wanted to do long-term. Cold showers are an instant daily reminder of this.

So, if you’re also struggling with the mountain of things you “should” do consistently, start with taking a cold shower. Start with 30 seconds every day if you must. It’s practically free, takes barely any time, and you can do it anywhere. What have you got to lose?

Focus on the experience, not the achievement and you can do anything forever.

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