Have you heard of the benefits of taking cold showers every day? If you’ve spent any time researching quick fixes to improve your health, you probably have.
Freezing cold starts to the day are said to help rev up your metabolism, burning fat like one of the best exercises for weight loss. They’re said to improve your immune system, give you more energy, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and even keep your skin and hair soft. Like learning how to meditate, it's a health trend very popular with self-improvement junkies because it's absolutely free to try.
Many of these claims are hearsay popularised by “biohackers” and online fitness gurus, and there’s little to no evidence backing them up. However, a few of these health and fitness claims are, in fact, backed up by science. For example, people who completed a month-long trial of daily cold showers were almost 30% less likely to call in sick for work, according to one study from several Netherlands (opens in new tab) institutes. There is also “rising evidence that winter swimmers are more resistant to certain illnesses and infections,” according to scientists from McMaster University (opens in new tab).
Matt Evans is an experienced Fitness Editor with a keen interest in the human body’s adaptability to physical challenges. Matt has tried a vast range of workouts, single-move stretches, and wellbeing challenges to see if the science matches up with the trend, and to find out exactly what happens to the body after consistently trying something new.
I decided to dig deeper, doing some research into wellness guru Wim Hof, who runs up mountains in nothing but his shorts, and takes a daily dip in cold Scandinavian waters. He had exposed himself to several studies (opens in new tab) to test his ability to reduce inflammation in his own body. However, all this evidence is circumstantial: with my fitness watch as the best way to track my stats at home, I decided to try it myself. For one week, I took freezing cold showers every day to see if I noticed any health benefits.
Cold shower challenge: How to do it
There are several ways of trying cold showers. One of them is to start the shower as hot as normal, and slowly turn the tap all the way to cold in the last few minutes. This is known as the "James Bond shower" as it's a habit popularised by the titular character of Ian Fleming's spy novels.
A quick search around the internet revealed plenty of other ways to ease yourself into the cold shower mindset, setting the shower at varying temperatures to get you used to the experience. However, I decided to turn the shower to freezing cold, set a timer on my phone to 75 seconds, used the first few seconds to psych myself up, and leaped into the shower with abandon.
It was really, really unpleasant. The water stung, and nerves felt like they were firing all over my body. Those first 30 seconds consisted of me dancing in and out of the water's path in the shower, swearing and cursing at my idiocy for trying this.
As the shower dragged on, I remembered some of the techniques in Wim Hof's videos, in which he was breathing deeply like a yogi while submerged in ice water. So I stopped moving and stayed under the water jets, taking deep breaths. Four seconds in, four seconds out. Fortunately, it got almost immediately better. I still wouldn't say it was "pleasant", but it certainly did get less uncomfortable, and I was able to white-knuckle it the rest of the way.
Over the course of the week, I did exactly the same thing–set my timer to 75 seconds, and ran into the shower like I was going into battle. Things improved; by day three, the shower wasn't quite so unpleasant. By day seven, I had actually begun to look forward to my daily dip. Every time I came out of the shower, I felt wired, like I’d downed a cup of coffee. All my nerve endings were alight with sensation. It turns out wellness isn't just about doing gentle stretches on the best yoga mats, and scented candles: this is zen practice for adrenaline junkies.
Cold shower benefits: it gave me more energy
Whether my immune system picked up or not as a result of my short showers, I've got no idea. However, I did feel a burst of energy. According to one study (opens in new tab), this is caused by the “high density of cold receptors in skin expected to send an overwhelming amount of electrical impulses from peripheral nerve endings to the brain”.
The shocking sensation of the cold activates all the nerves in your body, making you feel more alive than ever. I could even see my heart rate spike on my fitness tracker, which had to mean my metabolism was working overtime, chewing through my fat cells to supply me with additional energy. Following the cold shower up with a hot cup of coffee did more than warm me up again—combined with the caffeine, I felt like I could take on the world.
Cold shower benefits: it improved my mood
The week before I started this study, I was feeling very morose, stuck in the same comfortable routine brought on by COVID keeping me inside the apartment out of habit. The shocking sensation of cold changed things.
Over the course of the cold showers, I felt better than I had in weeks, and I had to assume the purported anti-depressive effect of the cold showers kicking in. I can't say with certainty this is to do with the showers–anecdotal evidence is so hard to pin down, and our mood often changes depending on sleep, diet and a host of other factors. But it certainly felt as though it helped me get out of a rut.
Cold shower benefits: it helped my anxiety
By far the biggest benefit was to my day-to-day anxiety, a phenomenon writer Julien Smith calls "the Flinch". When you're about to take a cold shower, you experience a sudden spike of fear just as you're about to step forward into the water, which gives you pause. That survival instinct would have been very good for us in caveman times, but these days, we're afraid of the wrong things. Fear stops us from sticking our hands up in class, volunteering for big work projects, asking someone out, and lots of other things we shouldn't be afraid of, but we are.
By taking a cold shower every day, we're overcoming that flinch and throwing ourselves into an uncomfortable situation, even for a minute. As we were all stuck at home as a result of the pandemic, we got very few chances to overcome our fears and do something about them.
By taking a cold shower every morning, I was starting each day with an act of courage, which is good practice for beating the flinch when it next rears its ugly head. That, in a very small way, is pretty life-changing.
I’ve been doing them ever since. I don’t have a cold shower every day anymore, but I got enough out of them to keep my hand in twice a week or so. If you’re lacing up the best running shoes for men or best running shoes for women and going for a run, following your shower up with a minute of sheer cold really revitalises your body.
Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and is currently Fitness and Wellbeing Editor at TechRadar, covering all things exercise and nutrition on Fit&Well's tech-focused sister site. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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