Cold showers are said to be extremely beneficial. The purported benefits of a freezing cold start to the day include a better immune system, more energy, improved mental health, and even cleaner skin and softer hair. It's a health trend very popular with self-improvement junkies because it's absolutely free to try.
A few of these health and fitness claims are backed up by science: for example, people who completed a month-long cold shower trial were 29% less likely to call in sick for work, according to one study. However, there's lots of claims we couldn't find evidence for.
After writing this article about the reported benefits of a cold soak last week, I decided to try it myself. For one week, I took freezing cold showers every day to see if I noticed any health benefits. I tried this despite the fact it's currently December, and it's already freezing cold outside.
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Cold shower challenge: Method
There's several ways of trying cold showers. One of them is to start the shower 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 Ian Fleming's superspy.
A quick search around the internet revealed plenty of other ways to "ease yourself in" to the cold shower mindset, setting the shower at varying temperatures to get you used to the experience. However, I decided this was the coward's way out. Instead, I turned the shower to freezing cold, set a timer on my phone to one minute and fifteen seconds, and charged in like I was heading into a gladiatorial arena.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was really, really unpleasant. The water stung, and the first thirty seconds comprised of me dancing in and out of the water's path, swearing my head off.
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As the shower dragged on, I remembered some of wellness guru Wim Hof's videos, in which he was submerged in ice water, breathing deeply like he was meditating. So I stopped moving and stayed under the water jets, taking deep breaths, and it got better. I still wouldn't say "pleasant", but it did get better.
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 it.
Cold shower challenge: Benefits
Whether my immune system picked up or not as a result of my short showers, I've got no idea. However, I did feel the burst of energy talked about in several research papers. I put this down to a spike of adrenaline caused by the intense physical sensation of extreme cold, which is sending loads of electrical impulses to my brain according to this study.
That same study, a review in hydrotherapy, also looks at the antidepressive effect of cold showers, caused by those same electrical impulses. The week before I started this study, I was feeling quite morose, mostly due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic. I'm not a depression sufferer (anxiety is my particular problem) but over the course of the cold shower challenge, I've been in pretty good spirits.
I can't say I'm 100% confident this is all to do with the showers: in these stressful times when we're all stuck at home, it's very normal for periods of low mood to come and go.
I swear my skin and hair look and feel a little bit softer too, although this could be a bit of a placebo effect.
Cold shower challenge: Why it changed my life
So if I only felt the very mild benefits above, why did I write "it changed my life" in the heading above? By far the biggest benefit by far was something largely unquantifiable, 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 sticking our hands up in class, volunteering for big work projects, asking out that man or woman, 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. When we're all stuck at home as a result of the pandemic, we get very few chances to overcome our fears and do something about them.
By taking a cold shower every morning, I've been 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.