The Wim Hof method promises to improve your cold tolerance, strengthen your immune system, increase athletic stamina and help you enjoy winter. Does it really work?
I have an exceptional aversion to cold. Although I’ve recently moved to Portugal, at the first sign of winter I’m usually on an airplane to somewhere tropical. So when my friend Rene Handler invited me to attend a Wim Hof workshop hosted by his company Surflife Atlantic Riders, sure that the Wim Hof Method would be my ticket to a new life, I accepted – Even though it meant jumping into an outdoor ice bath in the dead of winter.
“Your relationship with cold is going to change,” promised Reuben Oude Rikmanspoel, one of our instructors. Rikmanspoel has flown in from Rotterdam to lead the course along with Nicolas Starreveld, a Wim Hof and Kiteboarding instructor from Amsterdam.
The Wim Hof Method is a three pronged technique that combines breath work with meditation and cold exposure, and has been proven to strengthen your immune system and increase your cold tolerance.
The technique was created by its namesake Wim Hof, an eccentric Dutchman who made himself famous climbing snowy mountains in just a pair of shorts, then running across the Namibian desert with no food or water. Nicknamed “The Iceman” due to propensity for frigid swims and peculiar habit of meditating on icebergs in swim trunks, Hof firmly believes that what he can do, anyone can learn.
“We can do more than what we think,” said Hof, in his book Becoming the Iceman, which he co-authored with Justin Rosales. “It’s a belief system that I have adopted and it has become my motto. There is more than meets the eye and unless you are willing to experience new things, you’ll never realize your full potential.”
The workhorse of Hof’s method is the breathing. His techniques are derived from Tummo meditation, a Tibetan Buddhist tradition used to awaken your kundalini energy and generate inner heat. Our instructors called it “overbreathing.” Scientifically speaking, overbreathing helps you pull in more oxygen than is needed, which can stimulate the autonomic nervous system and help your body to produce more of an essential molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is an essential part of your bodily functions, needed for muscular movement, nutrient breakdown and even for generating electrical signals in the nervous system. Without ATP we couldn’t move, think or survive. When we have more of it, we do all of those things better.
The breathing exercises cause a shift in the CO2 and O2 ratios in the blood – by consuming more oxygen, you increase the O2 component, allowing your cells to produce ATP more efficiently. Simultaneously, the decreased CO2 levels help in preventing the production of lactic acids – ideal for improving athletic performance.
We were coached through three rounds of breathing. Hof’s Method is thirty deep, quick inhales followed by passive exhales, three times over. At the end of final exhale in each round, you hold your breath for as long as possible. It’s similar to a controlled hyperventilation, followed by a long breath hold and a recovery period.
Hof’s method does not aim to put the body into a relaxed state, as yoga breathing techniques might, but rather into an active state, helping it stand up to extreme conditions like our upcoming ice bath. Hof is an advocate of cold exposure as a way to improve the human condition.
“Modern life has become far too comfortable” explains Hof in one of his videos. “The body is no longer being stimulated and as a result, the full potential of our breath has been cut short, as we have become disconnected from the forces within. We protect ourselves from the cold, the rain and have air conditioning for when it is hot. Our nervous systems are weak and they are even atrophying, as the body is never tested against anything outside of itself.”
The Ancient Greeks were also known to have prescribed cold baths to aid with a variety of ailments. Even when water heating was invented, these cold baths were still thought to have numerous health benefits. As with many things, the Greeks were well ahead of their time.
A 1994 study by the Thrombosis Research Institute showed that people who took a daily cold shower had a higher white blood cells count than those who didn’t, making them better at fending off disease. According to the study, taking a cold shower causes the metabolic rate to increase to keep you warm. At a water temperature of 20°C, metabolic rate doubles, while at 14°C it’s more than four times the normal rate.
Hof has taken cold baths to the extreme, once submerging his body in ice water for nearly two hours – a stunt that should kill a normal human after a few minutes. According to scientists who have studied him, Hof’s metabolic rate increases 300% when he comes in contact with ice – although they’re still unsure how.
“Hof is able to turn up his heating system to three times the normal rate,” explained Maria Hopman, who headed the study where Hof was under ice for two hours. “He also does not shake and shiver, which is normally what the body would do to get warm. We don’t understand how this is possible.”
Scientists also can’t quite explain how Hof can survive in the desert without water, or avoid the more superficial physical effects of cold exposure, such as frostbite or ice burn. The speculation is that Hof’s method might help him to suppress normal immune reactions, which could one day have an impact on dealing with clinical syndromes. The long term training may be what’s making a difference.
“When we spend a vast amount of time cultivating our mental and physical skills, this translates into neurological differences when compared to those that don’t practice these skills to the same degree,” says Magda Osman, an associate professor of experimental psychology at the University of London who studies how repetitive action alters our grey matter growth.
As Hof says, “There may not be any pressing need for the world’s population to learn how to run barefoot through the snow,” however there are plenty of other potential uses for his techniques.
Exposure to cold has been proven to break down inflammatory proteins, which might help to relieve a long list of ailments from arthritis to asthma. It also increases beta-endorphin and noradrenaline levels giving you a natural high. The cold exposure training does cause your blood vessels to constrict, as our instructors warned us, meaning people with high blood pressure or those who are pregnant are advised against the cold-exposure part of the practice.
While our course focused more on the experience, rather than the science behind the method, the numerous scientific studies undertaken on Hof and his followers have helped to give the method credibility, while allowing scientists to actually study the vast potential of the human body.
“What you’re really doing is facing, and thus freeing yourself, from your fears.”
In a 2014 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , Hof trained twelve volunteers in his technique for a period of ten days. Then, along with a control group, they received an injection to induce inflammation, normally resulting in flu-like symptoms. The trained participants showed significantly fewer symptoms than the control group. According to researchers, the training taught them to voluntarily activate their autonomic nervous system, and thus the associated immune system, warding off infection. This was previously thought to be impossible.
The studies have also shown that the exposure to cold had a positive effect on the development of brown fat tissue – a type of fat which allows our bodies to convert glucose and white body fat (stored energy) directly into body heat. It helps us lose weight, and is generally associated with cardiovascular health. This type of fat is present in adolescents and babies, however it normally disappears by the time we’re adults. The cold exposure training causes it to return.
After living years in tropical climates with a clinical adverion to cold (I have Raynaud’s disease, causing diminished blood circulation in my extremities) I was still skeptical. I watched two men fill up a bathtub with ice just outside the window, a part of me wishing that Mr. Hof really was just freak of nature, as the scientific community had once thought. Then I wouldn’t be sitting here, believing that it was possible for me to survive my own icy dunk.
That’s where the third pillar of the method – “commitment” – fits in. As with any practice, the Wim Hof Method only works if you have the focus and dedication to follow through with it. Otto Musik, a pediatrician in Wayne State University’s School of Medicine who studied Hof in 2018, calls it a case of “brain over body.”
“By accident or by luck [Hof] found a hack into the physiological system,” Musik reported to Smithsonian magazine. “This hack allows him to feel euphoric while in a freezing cold environment.”
Musik explains that Hof activates the part of his brain that releases opioids and cannabinoids into the body when he’s exposed to cold, thus inhibiting the signals that tell the body to feel pain or cold. This process also releases dopamine and serotonin into the system, Musik says, creating kind of a euphoric high that lasts for several minutes.
Those who come from Eastern schools of thinking might credit Hof’s meditation practice.
“Your brain has the power to modify your pain perception,” he says, “it’s a mechanism that’s particularly important for human survival.”
It was time to strip down to our bathers and head outside, where a grey, windy, 14-degree celcius day awaited us. Rikmanspoel and Starreveld led the group in a power warm up circle, and one by one we took our turn in the ice bath.
We were instructed to start standing upright in the tub so as not to shock the system (which can, in some cases, provoke a heart attack). Then, to sit down as low as we could in the water. After 90 seconds, you’re given the option to dunk under.
Halfway through the group, I took my turn, carefully stepping into the icy water. The effect was intense – pain shot up through my body. Rikmanspoel coaxed me into sitting down, although I was unable submerge my chest. I Immediately, I lost my breath.
Rikmanspoel held his hand open in front of my face. “Use your breath to push my hand away from you,” he coached. I exhaled strongly through my mouth, and he pantomimed his hand moving backwards. We repeated the process, until I had calmed down, although icy pain was still prevalent.
According to Rikmanspoel, I needed to convince myself that being in the ice for a few minutes wouldn’t kill me to, in order to deactivate the fight-or-flight reaction that was keeping me from relaxing in the tub.
“It may be uncomfortable, or even painful,” he explained, “but two minutes in the bath won’t kill you. It’s an unrealistic fear. Thirty minutes it ice might kill you though. That would be a realistic fear. Take long exhales to lower your heart rate and release yourself from the fear reaction.”
In some ways, the Wim Hof Method was similar to many of the other self-improvement techniques I had tried over the years. What you’re really doing is facing, and thus freeing yourself, from your fears.
According to Starreveld, that was the point of the whole exercise. “Free yourself from all your pains and fears,” he told us. “Then you will really be free.”
After 1 minute and 20 seconds, I tapped out, without going underwater. I felt surprisingly warm when I got out of the tub, even though I was in my bikini, in the cold rain. Our group attracted stares from numerous passing cars. As I waited for the rest of the group to finish however, I found myself shivering.
Admittedly, I found this version practice too intense. Gradual cold exposure should work from where you are – and my natural cold tolerance was well below that of the northern Europeans who made up the majority of the group. Which in no way means I lost interest in the method.
Since the course ended, I’ve been taking regular plugs into the cold-water pool at the gym, which is a more balmy 14 degrees celsius. I genuinely feel the difference when I employ Hof’s breathing techniques before getting in – when I do, I can stay in the pool for longer. Although I’ve never felt warm in the frigid water, I can admit to feeling comparatively warmer after the breathing.
The list of benefits greatly outweighs my aversion to the cold exposure, as does my curiosity to the extent of the human body’s physical capacities. When Atlantic Rider’s holds their advance course next year, they can expect me to be there.