Being in a business that provides music for fitness apps, I have become interested in body hacking: optimizing my health in new and innovative ways. Like anyone with a busy schedule, I wanted to know what was the smallest change I could make to get the biggest benefit and impact on my health? I found one method that surprised me — that taking a cold shower for 2 minutes every day would reduce my resting heart rate and in turn potentially help prevent heart disease in the long-run. According to the World Health Organization and the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death globally and in the U.S. So finding something that could serve as a short-term “proof point” that could have long-term benefits seemed like a great place to start.
“Generally, a lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient heart function and better cardiovascular fitness. For example, a well-trained athlete might have a normal resting heart rate closer to 40 beats per minute.” — The Mayo Clinic
I stumbled upon a YouTube series claiming that “cold therapy” in the form of a cold shower could reduce my resting heart rate by up to 20 or 30 beats per minute if I did it daily and consistently. I was intrigued but skeptical. The self-described “Iceman” in the videos is cold therapy advocate Wim Hof. His basic premise is that this method is easy, with minimal time investment, and in return you are basically “vaccinating yourself against heart disease.”
The gist of his scientific philosophy is that we as modern humans have gotten soft. Our prehistoric ancestors were exposed to extremes of weather while we try to keep ourselves in about 70 degree environments at all times. It might feel comfortable, but he explains that it actually does our body a disservice:
“Adaptation to cold is the optimal stimulation of your vascular system. By regularly exposing your body to cold, you train your heart — you’re literally exercising the vascular system. The skin is an organ which we rarely expose to natural elements — but it’s built to be stimulated. Living with clothes on all the time is de-stimulating behavior, so our heart compensates for that. It’s pumping more than it should. You weaken and stress yourself. This creates oxidative stress through the continuous presence of cortisone, which is a bad thing.”
“Over time, this weakens your vascular system. Not when you’re young, but starting at around 30 and increasing with age. By just adding two minutes a day in a cold shower, you stimulate the cardiovascular muscle tone, blood flows better to cells, and your heart rate goes down. If you do it regularly, your vascular system becomes less stressed because it is activated and optimized. This in turn increases your energy because your body is working efficiently.”
Hof makes a compelling case, but it also seemed too good to be true, so I wanted to see for myself if it had any effect. So I chose the month of January for my experiment. I wanted to have a good baseline to come to a conclusion with, and I had already planned to take that month off of alcohol (something that affects your heart rate) so it seemed like the perfect time. To set a control environment, I changed nothing about my diet or exercise other than I stopped drinking alcohol. I use the Apple Watch and the companion Health app on my iPhone to track my physiological biometrics.
My resting heart rate on January 2nd was 56 BPM (beats per minute). In another article, I discuss taking a break from booze, which almost immediately brought my resting heart rate down to about 50 BPM that week. As you can see, I baselined at around 50 BPM for that first week.
I then began experimenting with Hof’s methodology to slowly introduce myself to cold showers. Hof explains his method in the video:
“To begin, just go step by step. Begin with taking a regular shower. Then for the last 30 seconds, turn it to cold only. The next day try 40 seconds, and keep adding 10 seconds until you’re up to 2 minutes. Don’t force it. You will feel what you’re capable of. You can go higher but it should be no longer than 3 minutes. The goal is to do it until it becomes just water to you. Try not to cramp up and don’t panic. You are purposefully stressing your body. Take longer “out” breaths. Learn to control your breath and it will go quickly.
I have to say, it takes some getting used to. The first time I was in complete terror and my heart was racing. I tried to mentally prepare myself but it really does shock your senses. Heating your body up before with the regular shower does help though. I put my head in first and gradually move my entire body in. After about two weeks, my body started to adjust and it was no longer that feeling of fear when I did it. I really did start to acclimate. One important tip is that if you spend the entire two minutes swearing and trying to make yourself warm, it won’t work. If you do it slowly and consistently, you will get used to it to the point where it really is just water. Also, just know in advance that your skin will get bright red and that’s normal.
My BPM went down each day until mid-month when I caught a 24-hour bug and my resting heart rate shot up to around 58 BPM, but returned to the new low average of 50 BPM very quickly:
Interestingly, I started to see some dramatic results. The next week my average went down to 47 BPM and stayed down. So after doing this for just a few weeks, I was shocked, yes literally and figuratively, to discover that by the end of the month I was down to 47 BPM from the high of 56 at the beginning. I attribute the high of 56 to be the alcohol, but it’s probably fair to say that I dropped from 50 to 47 doing NOTHING but introducing cold showers.
You can see over the next several weeks that my resting heart rate continued to stay at an average of 47 BPM.
So if protecting yourself from heart disease is important to you, I would highly recommend this practice. It is easy once you get used to it, and the payoff, according to my amateur findings appears to be real — maybe not the 20–30 BPM drop like Hof claims, but certainly a definitive drop.
Maybe, as Hof says, “Cold exposure is your friend for life.” Literally.
Video links for Wim Hof’s Cold Therapy: