My mission over the last few years has been to find simple yet effective ways to improve my health. I’ve recently come across the Wim Hof method, which can be added into your daily routine without too much effort.
Wim Hof is a 63 year old Dutchman – known as the Iceman. He holds many world records for endurance feats involving the extreme cold. Experiments on Wim have revealed that he has effectively trained himself to control his sympathetic nervous system, something previously thought impossible. He does this through controlled breathing and cold exposure training. Although Wim comes across as a bit of a new-age health guru, there is a lot of science backing up his method.
Wim started swimming in ice water when he was young but it wasn’t until the suicide of his wife – leaving him alone with 4 children to support – that he became the ‘Iceman’. He told Novak Djokovich in a podcast that “It was my children that made me survive, but it was the ice water that healed me.”
The Wim Hof Method essentially involves two things: breathing exercises and cold water exposure.
We’ll start with the breathing as this is easy and relaxing to do. The best way is to follow Wim along using his YouTube videos.
You start by doing 30 breaths rhythmically. Deeply breathe in, filling your belly and chest, and then let the air out. On the final exhale you stop and hold your breath for as long as you can. Typically a minute is do-able on the first round, but you should listen to your body at all times. When you can no longer hold your breath, take a deep recovery breath and hold for 15 seconds, then exhale. You then repeat this cycle. Three or four rounds is recommended. You will likely feel light headed when doing the deep breathing as you are purposely hyperventilating so you should always sit or lie down. This breathing exercise is excellent for stress and you will feel rejuvenated and energised afterwards.
The breathing method works by lowering the CO2 in your body through deep breathing and turning your blood more alkaline. This means that when you then hold your breath on the final exhale you can last much longer than you might expect – I’ve lasted up to 3 minutes on my final round. Holding your breath creates positive stress in your body – releasing endorphins and adrenaline.
The cold water exposure is more of a challenge. Before ruling this out, consider that I used to be someone who at the beach would pathetically splash water onto my trunks to acclimatise. So if I can do it, anyone can.
The best approach is to turn your hot shower to cold for a few seconds before going back to hot. Increase the duration you can endure each time. Deep breathing will help. The aim is not to get used to the cold – the point is that the cold is a shock to the system – but you can train yourself to mentally to accept it. Two minutes in cold water is said to be optimal. I now find that after about a minute my body starts heating itself up and the final few seconds I no longer notice the cold. After a cold shower your skin will glow and you will feel strong both mentally and physically. It’s always best to end on cold and to warm up naturally, but do whatever it takes for you to keep doing it.
The health benefits of short exposure to the cold are well recognised. Our bodies evolved to experience short and intense stressors – hormesis. This sort of thing is actually essential to our health, but we have become accustomed to comfort and avoiding extremes. We associate any stress with damaging chronic stress, when short duration stress is the exact opposite. We also think health improvements require some kind of external intervention. As Wim Hof points out, we have so many of the tools already within our own bodies.
Having been doing the Wim Hof method for a while now, I can’t prove that it has given me any health benefits. This could be because my diet and exercise regime are already helping me. However, studies have shown that the method improves the immune system and can help a number of ailments, such as depression. Cold exposure in particular activates your brown fat, which helps you lose weight. Many people have attested to the method helping them. I suspect that the method is providing me with a general health boost and I definitely find it improves my mood and makes me feel more alive.
© JimmySP 2023