Outdoor ice baths are good for us, you say? Let me just check the science on that | Joel Snape

Many of my friends are leaping into wheelie bins full of ice cubes. I will be sticking to indulgence and easy living – and the research is on my side

Somehow, I’ve become the sort of person whose WhatsApp friends are planning a January ice bath challenge. The warning signs were all there: they have been going on about chlorine floaters and wireless thermometers for months, swapping pictures of their outdoor tubs and tipping each other off when B&Q has a flash sale on water butts. Now it has escalated: five minutes a day in the 12C glug is the prescription, with a 100 press-ups bonus round and no-booze rider for the genuine maniacs. In, I repeat, January.

Obviously, I won’t be participating. First, I’m not convinced the science suggests I need 31 ice baths: yes, there’s some evidence that they reduce inflammation, but that might be counterproductive if you are aiming to build muscle, as I frequently am. Research also suggests that targeted cold exposure might improve attention, mood and cognitive focus, and that if it’s applied to your glabrous skin surfaces – a fancy word, as I’ve recently learned, for all the hairless areas – it might even improve your 5k time or bench press.

But if I’m going to be motivated to top up a wheelie bin with ice cubes and wince my way into it every morning, I need a bit less “statistically significant” and a bit more “instant Captain America”. I want to silence any disapproving neighbours with a porpoise-like somersault out of the frosty water, not feel a bit less sleepy in the late afternoon. There are loads of things I could already be doing to get faster, more proven benefits – sleeping more, drinking more water, not staring at my phone the instant I wake up – and I’m not doing any of them. If I want to improve my life, that is where I should start, not by disrupting the school run because I’ve gone full manatee. Ice baths aren’t a plaster on a gunshot wound, they are an MRI scan for a mild hangover.

Second, and maybe more importantly, I’m not convinced that this sort of self-flagellation, especially during the worst bit of the year, does anybody any good. There is research to suggest that we humans prefer “additive” solutions to “subtractive” ones – stabilisers over pedal-free balance bikes, productivity plans over streamlining, sticking extra bits on the Lego tower rather than taking them away – but, as far as I know, nobody has bothered to check whether we favour punitive solutions over pleasurable ones. It would be interesting because we do seem to gravitate to the former. Maybe it’s because “no pain, no gain” rhymes better than “no strain, moderate gains over an appropriate period of time”.

For example, I experimented with cold-water immersion in the form of a load of icy showers last summer. And it was fine! For a dozen mornings, I reduced the temperature, gritted my teeth, and blasted my glabrous and non-glabrous areas alike with cold, cold water. I definitely felt better afterwards, in the way you always feel better when you go from doing something horrible to doing something fine; and I might have been slightly more productive, thanks to being immediately and extremely awake. Cold-shower fans claim they can reduce anxiety, by nudging the autonomic nervous system into producing endorphins, and I certainly felt a bit calmer when I wasn’t sluicing myself down with 10C water.

Then I read about the “default mode network”, a set of regions of the brain that kick in when we’re not distracted by our external surroundings, allowing thoughts and concepts to bump into each other and serendipitously combine. It’s this network that facilitates “shower thoughts”, those moments of creative connection that usually occur in the five minutes a day you’re not staring at a screen – and it’s that network I was switching off by turning every shower into an ordeal, blasting those little sparks straight out of my head like a prison warder turning a firehose on rioters.

So that is why I stopped having cold showers, and it is also why I won’t be taking ice baths in January. Instead, I plan a month of indulgently steamy soaks, where I can let my thoughts carom off each other while I wallow in 40C water like a hippo. Why not join me? If B&Q gets involved, this could be the start of something really special.

  • Joel Snape is a writer and self-improvement enthusiast.


Joel Snape

The GuardianTramp

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