Does cold exposure help more than it makes you yelp?

Posted by Al Boyle
On November 26, 2023

“The cold never bothered me anyway.”

 

Let It Go
Elsa, singing about accepting her freezing powers, and with it, accepting herself
Frozen motion picture soundtrack (2013)

You’d have never heard me singing that growing up. Cold exposure was light years from my mind.

More often than not, I’ve treated cold weather as something to avoid. I’d dress to make the Michelin Man proud, wearing layers–right down to the socks–skull cap, gloves, and boots.

That was for sledding or hanging with friends. The exceptions? Shoveling snow, playing football, and other high intensity workouts.

With shoveling, my body’s heat would have me shedding my coat after fifteen or twenty minutes.

With football, my top layer would be a sweatsuit and sneakers would replace boots. I’d wear gloves if I could manage a decent grip on the ball, which most times wasn’t the case.

With martial arts training or strength training in the dead of winter, I’d feel almost impervious to the cold when I headed home. So much so, I’d carry my coat instead of wearing it.

These activities’ intensities helped my body adjust. I also had no choice but to endure cold for some period to participate in the activity.

Cold exposure’s a different beast, though. I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be making time to subject myself to the cold, much less appreciating it.

What is cold exposure?

“Look around
Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter.”

 

Hazy Shade of Winter
The Bangles, covering Simon and Garfunkel’s song
Album: Less Than Zero soundtrack (1983)

I like Andrew Huberman’s definition:

“Cold exposure is the deliberate introduction of the body to cold environments or cold water — whether in the form of cold showers, cold water immersion, or winter swimming.”

That’s quite the spectrum, going from showers to winter swimming.

How cold exposure works

My take is light on the science, yet heavy on the relatability:

  1. You expose yourself to the cold.
  2. You wonder what the h*** you were thinking.
  3. You contemplate aborting the session.
  4. You adapt a bit to the temperature.
  5. You feel great when it ends.
  6. You plan to do it again.
  7. You repeat steps 1-6.

Andrew Huberman’s take:

“Subjecting the body to cold temperatures activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering specific physiological responses including the release of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine.”

My take on Andrew’s take:

My sympathetic nervous system sounds anything but sympathetic when it’s pleading with me to end this madness. “Specific physiological responses” is code for your skin signaling your brain to speak to you in tongues.

And we’ve all seen enough supernatural horror movies to know that goes.

I do go from feeling like a dope to feeling pretty dope afterward, though.

Cold exposure’s benefits

Andrew’s take first, for context:

“There are both mental and physical benefits of cold exposure — research has shown that deliberate cold exposure can have positive effects on blood flow and brown fat activation, influence insulin sensitivity, reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, and improve mental health.”

My take:

I’ve been subjecting my body to cold for about a year. I feel more alert once I’m done. The jury’s out on post-exercise muscle soreness since I’m still recovering from back surgery and not pushing myself with strength training.

My experiences with cold exposure

“Ice, ice, baby…”

 

Vanilla Ice
Album: To The Extreme (1990)

I take cold showers as cold as the water can get. First several showers were brutal. I felt like Skrat from the Ice Age movie franchise: nervous, jittery, and seconds from screaming.

Now, I try to relax within it. Focus on shallow, quiet breaths.

I traveled several months ago, and the hotel shower forced me to raise my game. The water was colder, the pressure stronger, and my whimpering, audible to me.

On cooler days, I’ll try to keep the hoodie off, or make do with a hoodie when it’s really a coat’s job. A breeze or wind can test your mettle, but it’s also an opportunity to build resilience.

I was feeling pretty good about myself once I got a bit used to the “harsher” conditions.

Then I caught Limitless, a limited series where Chris Hemsworth navigates mind blowing physical and mental challenges that mere mortals would leave to their stunt doubles.

The cold exposure challenge?

He strips to a Speedo for a 300-yard swim in 36-degree Arctic Ocean waters off Norway on a gusty day.

“Well, excuuuuuse me!”

 

Steve Martin
Album: Let’s Get Small (1977)

And couldn’t resist…

“Put on the suit. Let’s go a few rounds.”

 

Captain America to Tony Stark during a nasty argument that gets personal
The Avengers (2012)

Now you’ve got me thinking about a cold plunge tub or tank.

Appreciate the push. Just not into the water.

Resources

https://www.hubermanlab.com/episode/dr-susanna-soberg-how-to-use-cold-and-heat-exposure-to-improve-your-health

https://www.hubermanlab.com/newsletter/the-science-and-use-of-cold-exposure-for-health-and-performance

https://www.hubermanlab.com/topics/heat-exposure-and-cold-exposure-to-optimize-health

https://www.hubermanlab.com/episode/tim-ferriss-how-to-learn-better-and-create-your-best-future?timestamp=270

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35213875/

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