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Why regular ice baths are good for you

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If feeling fine isn’t enough for you, an icy plunge is just what the doctor orders.

Most of us want to be as healthy as possible, but for an increasing number of people there is another goal. Dubbed “extreme wellness”, it is fuelling an industry of health retreats aimed at optimising physical and mental fitness.

This involves more than a holiday with a few yoga sessions, massages and green smoothies. From radical diet and exercise programmes to intensive meditation and personal development, extreme wellness can involve pushing the mind and body: think firewalking and sweat lodges.

“Extreme wellness is about consciously exploring the limits of your physiology so you can achieve bliss and find balance,” says Marc Cohen, an Australian integrative health specialist.

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At Maruia Hot Springs in the Southern Alps, Cohen is hosting wellness retreats that feature extreme bathing – submerging the body in the ice-cold waters of an alpine lake for up to two minutes, then warming up with the help of a makeshift steam room, fluffy bathrobes and heated hammocks.

The theory is that, in modern life, with its temperature-controlled environments and access to warm clothes, we spend so much time in our comfort zones that our bodies rarely get to employ their natural heating and cooling systems.

A Maruia Springs retreat also involves guided breathing sessions, deep relaxation and hikes through the bush. But extreme bathing is the key part of the experience. Cohen, a doctor and professor of complementary medicine at RMIT University, in Melbourne, claims it has many benefits.

“It’s great for recovery, pain and inflammation – many elite athletes take ice baths regularly. It benefits the vascular system and affects us at a cellular level. It’s also psychologically empowering as it’s an enforced mindfulness practice. It brings you into your own body. You can’t worry about other things; you just have to breathe and be there and that’s really powerful.”

Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete known as “Iceman”, is a pioneer of the therapy. His method combines a specialised breathing technique – described as “controlled hyperventilation” or “power breathing” – with cold exposure in the form of showers and ice baths. The result, he says, is a faster metabolism, boosted energy and reduced inflammation that soothes sore muscles.

Marc Cohen, far left, and Wim Hof. Photos/Supplied

The science of such shock treatment is inconclusive, however. A 2017 study by an international team, including scientists from Auckland’s Liggins Institute, found that ice baths are no more beneficial than a low-intensity warm down when it comes to reducing inflammation and muscle damage after intensive exercise. Cold baths may actually reduce muscle gain in the long run.

That hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm of proponents such as Cohen. He cites the findings of a 2016 Dutch study, in which 3000 volunteers ended their morning shower with a 30-, 60- or 90-second blast of cold water. On average, those who doused themselves in cold water took 29% fewer sick days than those in the control group; if they also engaged in regular physical exercise, the proportion rose to 54%.

Jumping straight into very cold water isn’t without dangers. There is a risk of involuntary inhalation leading to drowning or even a heart attack.

“But in a controlled situation, using relaxation techniques before you go in, it’s safe,” says Cohen, who points out that the objective is to test your limits, not exceed them. “You’re totally in control; you can get in and out as you want.”

He encourages participants in his retreats to stay in cold water for 10-15 seconds, or until they stop hyperventilating.

His first New Zealand retreat was in November and the next is planned for April. Those who sign up tend to be seeking personal empowerment and improvement, or are battling illness, anxiety or pain. They may simply want to enhance their performance.

However, it’s not necessary to have access to an alpine lake to experience the benefits of cold therapy, says Cohen. Often, he makes do with a chilly blast of water from his home shower.

“I recommend starting slowly. Begin with the feet, legs, hands and arms, then cool the core, then the head. It doesn’t have to be traumatic. Do it for long enough that you feel cold. But if you’re shivering or your teeth are chattering, you’ve gone too far.”

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.