What if I told you that by taking cold showers, ice baths, walks in the winter wearing only a t-shirt and sleeping with the thermostat down low, you could experience profound health benefits? You’d probably tell me I’m crazy, because you, like most people, have learned to hate the cold.
The path to unlocking many of these benefits does not require you to move to Alaska or spend your winters in a frozen tundra. There are actually a number of ways you can harness the cold in your everyday life…but if you do happen to live in a colder place like Alaska you may have a leg up on the rest of us.
This concept of Cold Exposure or Cold Thermogenesis has gained some serious attention in the past few years, inching its way towards the mainstream health world. If you think back to your first sprained ankle or bruise, someone probably told you to treat the injury with a cold compress or ice. This topic of icing an injury is the focus of a lot of debate, but the principle behind it still remains efficacious as research has gone to show. For the sake of this article, I will be referring to the effects of cold exposure on bodywide inflammation, not directly as a treatment for healing an acute injury.
How exactly does cold reduce swelling and inflammation? Exposing a swollen/inflamed area of your body to cold reduces blood flow by constricting the blood vessels. Additionally, it reduces nerve activity in the area which decreases pain for some time. You may be starting to wonder how this is relevant and applicable to you, but don’t worry I’m getting there. Humans are indeed miraculous and intricate beings, unfortunately, we are plagued by the omnipotent forces of stress. Stress by itself or in conjunction with other factors can cause some pretty detrimental inflammation in our bodies. This type of inflammation is not just external, but internal and down to the cellular level. Stress is the slowest and most deadly killer.
In a time where it is almost impossible to avoid stimulation and stress we should be doing everything we possibly can to combat the slow death stress threatens us with. So now that we’ve established that we’re all walking inflamed and stressed out pieces of meat, we can talk about solutions.
In my own quest to combat inflammation I found myself jumping into a nearby river almost every day. Throughout the year the river runs pretty cold, but in the fall and winter months it is frigid. I used to have such a love-hate relationship with cold water submersion. Ever since my first ice bath during pre-season football, I grew to hate the feeling of an ice bath but love the therapeutic effects. Little did I know that down the line cold water submersion would become a vital part of my daily routine.
The process couldn’t be more simple:
- Find cold water.
- Submerge your body in cold water.
- Breath, relax and go to your happy place.
- After 5-10 minutes, get out and feel rejuvenated!
Don’t have access to a body of cold water? Hop in the shower or bathtub and reap the benefits.
What will this do for you? Think of it like putting a giant cold pack on your entire body. Every inch of you is being cooled down, therefore slowing blood flow to any areas experiencing inflammation and swelling. This effect is not only skin deep, rather the cold temperature lowers your entire body’s temperature so your internals reaps some of the benefits as well. This shrinking of blood vessels, called vasoconstriction is extremely beneficial because as you exit the water and begin to warm up, blood rushes back in and this process of “flushing” contributes to improved recovery.
Think of your blood vessels and muscles as sponges, in this context of cold water submersion. Entering the water causes vasoconstriction, similar to wringing out a sponge. Upon exiting the water and warming up, the blood rushes back into the vesicles, just as a sponge sucks up water. You may have heard of something called a contrast bath, or contrast therapy. A contrast bath has you alternate between cold and hot to induce this “sponge-like” effect. Contrast baths are great too, but most people don’t have access to the proper facilities, and hot springs are rarely right next to icy cold mountain water.
Why is this flushing so great? Well in general good blood circulation is important. Circulation is what keeps things fresh because your blood is being used, moved around, then reoxygenated by your lungs. Circulation enables blood to essentially be used as well as remove toxins and free radicals that are a result of inducing stress on your muscles from exercise, eating and being exposed to environmental pollutants. The more efficient this process becomes the better. Cold submersion does exactly that. If you want to get super specific, the hydrostatic pressure from physically submerging your body in water also helps to push blood and lymph fluid around, which are both crucial in muscle recovery and hormone function.
In addition to the cardiovascular and muscular benefits, cold water immersion can also have profound effects on your nervous systems. For example: after a hard workout your central nervous system is typically pretty fatigued. It is extremely important to prioritize recovery of your CNS to ensure you don’t put yourself into a state of overreaching or overtraining. Your CNS is quite literally your backbone when it comes to functioning, from menial tasks to intense workouts. Cold therapy can be incredibly therapeutic in helping to deregulate your sympathetic nervous system, which in turn calms and relaxes you. The benefit comes primarily from a stress management standpoint. The greater your control over your sympathetic nervous system response to stressors, the quicker and easier you can let your autonomic nervous system induce recovery.
Another similar method of cold therapy for recovery that you may have
heard of is whole body cryotherapy (WBC). As of recent WBC has gained a lot of popularity. This popularity is perhaps partly due to the unique administration method of this recovery tool. The futuristic look of the chamber and the shockingly low temperatures makes this recovery tool well worth the high price tag for many people, especially because they want to post about it on Instagram. The gripe that I have with WBC is that the benefits do not justify the price tag or accessibility. In a recent study done by the London Sport Institute, researchers found that WBC was shown to have “a negative impact on muscle function, perceptions of soreness and a number of blood parameters compared to CWI [Cold Water Immersion], contradicting the suggestion that WBC may be a superior recovery strategy”. Whats even more compelling is that they found that “cryotherapy is no more effective than a placebo intervention at improving functional recovery or perceptions of training stress following a marathon”. Take these findings however you’d like, the point of this is to show you that you don’t need to spend tons of money to achieve recovery benefits from the cold.
This is the topic most people are probably reading this for, and I don’t blame you. One of my biggest health struggles was eliminating the extra fluff around my waistline, which became a tireless obsession of mine. Thanks to the incredible (and absolutely free) power of the cold, I was finally able to break the plateau and ditch the belly fat.
So how exactly can the cold help me burn fat? A common misconception and misleading trend in the health and fitness community is the use of “waist trainers”. Waist trainers claim to achieve something called “spot reduction”, ie: target specific areas for fat loss. By keeping the area under a tight heat traping wrap, you focus body heat and blood flow to that area and theoretically burn the fat. There may be some efficacy to this heating method, but if there is it pales in comparison to its polar opposite competitor, the cold.
See, the problem with spot reduction is that it is largely dependent on the intensity of exercise that you are performing, which subsequently determines which fuel source your body is burning, carbohydrate or fat. Harder workouts that produce more body heat will primarily use carbs as fuel, rendering the extra heat on your waist, futile. With this parameter established it is clear that the goal would be to burn fat, more specifically your own stored body fat and excessive heat falls short of cold in doing this.
Cold is superior for burning up your own body’s fat stores for a few reasons:
Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT) Activation. Brown adipose tissue is found all throughout your body and is like a direct ticket to burning your body’s stored white fat (the stuff you want to get rid of). Normally through means of exercise, your body would burn glucose, then stored glycogen, then finally fat. It is very hard to get to this state unless of course you are substantially fat adapted. BAT, on the other hand, has a much quicker rate of reaction when you tap into it the proper way. BAT activation is primarily the way our bodies warm up and increase our temperature. Amount of BAT varies person to person, but you can increase the amount your have through things like exercise and fasting...or best, through cold exposure.
As you can imagine, cold exposure induces shivering. This shivering is your bodies natural response to a decrease in its temperature. Like I said previously, your body uses BAT to produce heat and warm itself up. BAT uses white stored fat from our bodies as fuel, effectively shrinking your problem areas. Shivering intensely can be very uncomfortable and annoying, but you don’t necessarily have to reach that point to get the same effects. This is where cold walks or as some like to call them “shiver walks” come into play. Head outside on a cold day wearing only a shirt and shorts and walk for as long as you can. Sound horrible? Yeah, it takes some getting used to, but trust me its worth it. The key to surviving more than 5 minutes is to cover the most vulnerable parts of you that tend to get cold the fastest. I’m talking about your hands, feet, face, and head. Get these places covered up and you can almost trick the rest of your body into thinking it’s not cold. What occurs next is shivering, due to a drop in the temperature of your skin. This shivering may be noticeable or it may not because shivering can occur at an almost microscopic level. Point is that you are shivering because your body is trying to warm itself up, and it is doing so by means of BAT activation and doing that by burning up your stored white fat. So through this long chain of processes, you are accomplishing your goal.
Shivering is typically a bodywide event, and can burn a surprising amount of calories, with those calories being from fat. One could simulate this shivering effect of cold exposure through other means as well, by using ice packs and sleeping or working in a cold room. Spot reduction using ice packs is the direct opposite of the well-known method using heat, although cold makes it work much better. So if you have some stubborn belly fat to lose, try strapping an ice pack around your waist while you’re sitting at your desk to trigger shivering, convert white belly fat into BAT and over time watch it disappear.
Another very effective way you can tap into this cold fat burning zone quickly is to perform 30-40 minutes of low intensity fasted cardio first thing in the morning and follow it up with a cold shower or bath. If its cold out, even better, wear minimal layers. Low-intensity cardio typically means a simple walk or very light jog. You shouldn’t be breathing heavy or sweating. Due to the low intensity of the activity, your body will use fat as its fuel opposed to carbohydrates (which it uses for higher intensity work). The reason it is useful to do this while fasted is that your body is even more likely to use its fat stores over carbohydrates due to the lack of recent food absorption. Additionally fasted exercise has been shown to cause an increase in HGH and other beneficial hormones that aid in fat loss and muscle growth. If you choose to take a cold shower or ice bath after this exercise, you are helping your fat loss efforts even more. Cold exposure in this fasted and fat burning state will easily target white body fat for conversion into good brown fat (BAT).
Cold exposure can be an intimidating thing. After all, so many of us have this conflated hatred of the cold. With this in mind, I suggest that you take things step by step. Start by taking contrast showers alternating between hot and cold, building up your tolerance and comfortability with the cold. Each day increase the time you spend basking in all the glory of the cold water until hot water is a thing of the past.
For those of you who refuse to try this “cold” thing out, have no fear. I will be writing more about recovery, fat loss techniques and ways to improve your health…without the cold in the coming future.
Before you go, I’d love to hear your:
Own experience with cold exposure!
Leave a comment below and keep striving to improve yourself each and every day!