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Could Immersing Yourself in Cold Water be Good for You?

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Lucinda Newman splashes in the icy Mad River on January 2. Photo by Nic Newman.

Looking for a way to juice up your immune system, improve your mood, and get a jolt of energy? More and more people, including many Vermonters, say you can accomplish those things by going for a winter swim or taking a bracing cold shower.

Of course, this is not a new idea. Many of us have seen photos of Russians jumping into holes cut into ice on the Russian Orthodox Church’s Epiphany feast day. And polar plunges, where people run and jump into lakes or the ocean in winter (and get out just as quickly) are a popular way to raise money.

But a growing number of cold-water enthusiasts believe in staying cold for extended periods and doing it on a regular basis for its health and psychological benefits. There is even a guru for the practice, a 61-year-old Dutch man named Wim Hof.

Hof, who is nicknamed “The Iceman” and has been known to swim among icebergs for 30 minutes at a time, has trained about 600 Wim Hof instructors, according to Outside magazine. Thousands have taken Wim Hof workshops that conclude with participants sitting in kiddie pools filled with water chilled by ice cubes.

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The Wim Hof Method, as described in YouTube videos, involves breathing exercises, cold exposure, and mental focus. According to Outside magazine, researchers have studied Hof “and found solid evidence he can control his own body temperature, nervous system, and immune response.”

Advocates of cold exposure believe it contributes to overall wellness. And apparently it feels good, at least when it is over. Immersion in cold water triggers a massive release of endorphins, as well as cortisol, a pain-relieving hormone that creates a euphoria in some people for hours afterward.

These days getting cold is a hot topic. The New York Times in its Jan. 1 edition carried a first-person account of cold-water swimming by a woman who said it makes her feel good and keeps her sane. There are cold water swimming meets around the world, including in Vermont. And President-elect Joe Biden is said to have indulged in New Year’s Day swims on Nantucket in the past.

Locally, there seem to be more people taking up the practice. Lucinda Newman of Moretown can be found swimming in the Mad River throughout the year. Montpelier’s Bo Moore — the “Eat More Kale” guy — and his girlfriend Nikki Boothby regularly take wintertime dips. And Anjali Budreski and John Goss, both Montpelier residents, like finishing up their showers by turning the handle to “C” for a few seconds or minutes on most days.

Nikki Boothby (left) and Bo Moore take an icy bath in Stowe. Courtesy photo.

Newman, an educator and leadership coach who operates Horses & Pathfinders, says she got interested in the practice four years ago and eventually took a 10-week course offered by Hof. “The first time I did the breathing retention practice, I couldn’t stop laughing,” she said. “I was hooked.”

Three times a week, Newman either takes a cold shower by cranking the water temperature down and holding her breath for one minute, or she takes a dunk in the Mad River. She started the swimming practice last April or May, she says, and continued swimming across the river and back until November, which takes her about two and a half minutes. “Now, when the ice allows, I dunk in the river for between one and a half to three minutes,” she said. 

According to Newman, the cold-water swims boost her energy and vitality. “I am more fit and have more energy,” she said. “It is very special for me. My mind clears and I feel peaceful. I sleep great and I have gone from being a worrier to having no anxiety.”

Nikki Boothby, a nurse at Central Vermont Medical Center, also started jumping into cold water early last spring, with her boyfriend Bo Moore. Now she tries to do it once a week. “I love water and I love being outside,” she said. “Winters are long here and I can’t ski due to knee injuries. So I came up with this idea from Wim Hof.”

Boothby, who also practices yoga and meditation, says the cold-water dunks are “another way to become present and follow my breath.” She cautioned that the cold water takes some getting used to: “The first time it is a shock. After a few times, I became more comfortable with it and now I feel warm when I get out of the water.”

She said getting into the cold water elevates her mood for a couple of days. She also thinks it is reducing the inflammation in her knees and her lower back, which gets tired from the lifting she has to do as a nurse.

Moore said he started cold water swimming to keep up with Boothby. “She doesn’t seem to get cold, frankly,” he said. “After the first time I did it, I didn’t think I would do it again. But now it’s got its hooks into me.” He said he spent five minutes in chest deep water on New Year’s Day and that the cold water “makes my brain feel good in the hours after.”

Moore and Boothby like to make a ritual of their dips, which they do at places like Bingham Falls in Stowe or the Cascades Trail in Worcester. “We light a fire and have extra clothing and blankets on hand,” Moore said. “It requires focus and mindset. Boothby gets excited as they prepare for the dip, she said, possibly due to an adrenaline rush.

Anjali Budreski, a yoga teacher and soul coach, says she has always been drawn to cold water, and as a teenager in Massachusetts took some polar plunges. But it was only in the late summer of 2019 that she started extending outdoor swimming into October. “I already loved it, and then I heard about Wim Hof and got intrigued and started researching it,” she said.

Budreski likes swimming, but because she does not live close to a body of water, she has committed to taking a cold shower every day. “I take my regular hot shower, then turn the handle all the way to cold for one to two minutes,” she said. “It’s scream-worthy.” Budreski dedicates her cold showers to a person or a cause, which “helps me last it out,” she said.

For Budreski, her commitment to cold showering is based more on the emotional and psychological benefits than for health. “It wakes you up and you experience a mental cleansing and feel clarity and calm,” she said. “After the shock, when I am done, I feel clear and happy.”

John Goss says he first learned about the potential benefits of cold while scrolling through a meditation app that belonged to his wife Suzanne and coming across a blurb about Wim Hof.

“It made sense to me,” said Goss, who began ending his showers with a blast of cold water about a year and a half ago. “At first, it wasn’t that much fun, even when I wasn’t turning the temperature that low. Now, I can’t end a shower without it. I come out of the shower pumped up and ready to do stuff.”

The technique Goss has developed is to take his regular shower, then turn the temperature down in several stages, with each stage lasting 20 to 30 seconds, to avoid getting a shock. When he gets to the lowest setting, “I dance and swing my arm for 10 or 15 seconds and that’s it.” He says he had not had a cold since he started taking cold showers.

Goss, who is part-owner of the health-oriented website GimmeTheGoodStuff.org, recently moved back to Vermont after a number of years living in Pennsylvania. He said he has found Hof’s theories helpful now that he is back in a colder climate: “If my fingers or hands are cold or my coat is too thin, I think about Wim Hof saying that being cold requires a psychological adjustment. And after a while I find that being a bit cold is not that bad.”

Vermonters in other parts of the state are also adopting the Wim Hof philosophy. A Nov. 11 story in Seven Days described a group of swimmers who go into Lake Champlain during most of the winter.

One of the swimmers, Charlotte resident Julie Postlewaite, told Seven Days she took up winter swimming in her mid-40s, after she became overly sensitive to the cold. She thought it was because of her age until she read a book by Wim Hof. Now she is hooked. “If you try it for three days, you’ll probably become addicted to it,” she told the newspaper.

The Seven Days article included some important advice about cold-water swimming. First, plunging into cold water can cause a “cold shock response,” so it may be better to ease in. Second, set a limit on how long you stay in. Another Charlotte swimmer, Susan Blood, explained there is a rule that for every one degree Celsius, it is safe to stay in for one minute, so if the water is 52 degrees Fahrenheit, or 11 degrees Celsius, 11 minutes is safe.

Finally, avoid warming up too quickly after a cold-water swim. When cold blood in the extremities returns to the body’s core during rewarming, the body’s temperature can plummet and a person can lose consciousness. The article said that’s why those with hypothermia should not be re-warmed too quickly.

If, after hearing about all the risks, you’re still interested to see if getting cold might be good for you, try turning down that shower handle or tossing some ice cubes into your bath. If you want to jump into cold-weather swimming, maybe you should start training for the races at the Memphremagog Winter Swimming Festival, February 26 to 28, in Newport. At previous festivals, water temperatures were 30 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit and air temperatures ranged from 0 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the festival’s website.

Or maybe, if you are like me, you’d rather put on your warmest winter clothes, prepare a thermos of hot tea, and go watch from the sidelines as impassioned cold-water enthusiasts swim their races in 25-meter lanes cut with a huge ice saw out of Lake Memphremagog’s thick winter ice.