I’m standing in my swimsuit in a garden, next to a wooden barrel filled with ice and water. It’s a sunny day, but the mini pool I’m in seems to radiate chill. The temperature gauge reads an invigorating 7C (45F) – and I’m shivering.
As my right foot breaks the surface, shock waves rise through my body and my toes go numb. Determined, I take the plunge with the other foot and lean back, trying desperately not to hyperventilate.
All I can think about is the cold and fighting every urge to get out. But within a few seconds, the unbearable feeling disappears. I feel strangely calm. Cold – but calm.
I sink further back, trying to submerge as much of my body and shoulders as possible. And suddenly it’s too much.
It feels like something takes my breath away and my heart starts pounding. This is, I imagine, what it’s like to be electrocuted.
FEEL THE COLD: Mail on Sunday Deputy Health Editor Eve Simmons tries an ice bath
I can’t take it anymore and almost involuntarily jump out. I held out for 90 seconds.
Why, you may ask, have I subjected myself to this torture?
Well, ice baths are the latest wellness craze. Top athletes and celebrities all swear by them for their purported benefits, including boosting muscle recovery after a workout and improving mental health and the immune system.
Earlier this month, This Morning host Holly Willoughby shared photos on social media of her taking a dip below zero – complete with wool cap.
IT IS A FACT
According to a poll, about half of all regular swimmers have spent more time exercising outdoors since 2020.
Meanwhile, Monk – a company that makes ‘smart’ home cold therapy baths that can cool the water without adding ice – already has a waiting list of nearly 3,000, despite the baths having a price tag of £4,995.
I’m not usually one to jump on these bandwagons. But I’m here hoping that two minutes of icy hell will cure me of my lifelong sensitivity to the cold—because, as counterintuitive as it may seem, there’s some evidence that it might.
One of the founders of this craze is Dutch wellness guru and author Wim Hof, famous for his superhuman ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He holds world records for swimming under ice in a frozen lake and completing a marathon barefoot in the snow.
I have no idea why anyone would want to do either one, but it’s impressive nonetheless. The secret, says Hof, lies in the gradual exposure to extreme cold, which acclimatizes the body to low temperatures.
This does appeal to me. I’m always freezing cold. I wear puffer jackets in August and can often be seen at my desk with a scarf draped around my shoulders to keep me warm. I fight endlessly with colleagues about the air conditioning in the office.
Could this be the answer? I’m willing to try.
As I prepare for my ice bath, my coach – Christian Lewis Pratt, co-founder of London gym The Move Method, one of several now offering ice bath therapy – tells me to submerge a large part of my body as soon as possible to put the worst behind you.
Afterwards, I felt mostly relief that it was over. I also felt proud that I had lasted this long. My legs tingled for a minute. It wasn’t unpleasant, just odd – kind of like the relief you feel after you sneeze. Other than that, nothing.
I am disappointed to learn that if I want to be more cold resistant, I have to take six cold dips over the course of a few days. Professor Mike Tipton, an expert in human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth, tells me this, and that a sudden drop in skin temperature all over the body – which you get when you’re submerged in icy water – causes what’s called cold shock . answer.
Nerves under the skin send signals to the blood vessels telling them to restrict blood flow, causing the heart to pump faster to generate more blood. The shock to the skin receptors causes a loss of control over breathing and hyperventilation.
But this can help you become more accustomed to cold water, Prof. Tipton says. “Studies show that if you expose yourself to cold water for two minutes six times a week, you can reduce your cold shock response. The heart rate slows down and you hyperventilate less quickly, which makes the experience more pleasant.’
You don’t actually need an ice bath for this. ‘You get this effect in water that is colder than about 15C [59F]’ says Professor Tipton.
This Morning presenter Holly Willoughby posts a photo of her attempting to take an ice bath
But research has not yet proven the other claimed benefits. Two studies found that cyclists and weightlifters who take a cold bath after training are more likely to be injured, perform less well, and have less muscle than those who don’t. The authors of one concluded that when blood flow is diverted from the extremities to keep the organs warm, the body’s repair processes are halted.
Then there are the risks. ‘About 60 per cent of people who die at sea do so in the first minute,’ says Professor Tipton. “The cold shock reaction puts extreme pressure on the heart. Anyone with underlying heart disease is at risk for a fatal attack.”
But the mental health benefits of ice baths are clear. Studies show that swimming in cold water for 30 minutes can relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety by increasing the production of mood-boosting hormones such as dopamine.
It’s been 48 hours since my immersion and I can’t say I feel any warmer. I am typing this with a scarf wrapped around my arms.
What else can I try? Get leaner and fatter, says Prof. Tipton. Muscles generate heat and having more fat acts like a ‘natural overcoat’. Hmm.
I’m more open to his last tip: “Hot air rises – so if you’re cold at home, put your feet up.”