Most people don’t enjoy taking cold showers. I didn’t either for the majority of my life and I wouldn’t have have given it a second thought if it wasn’t for the book, “What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength” by Scott Carney.
In the book, Scott tells the story of his exposure to the the ideas of Wim Hof and his training leading up to climbing (mostly shirtless in shorts) to the chilling peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in just 28 hours. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa at 19,341 feet above sea level- a trek that would normally be safely done in 5-7 days to avoid acute mountain syndrome.
If you’ve never heard of Wim Hof, he’s sort of a legend when it comes to enduring trials of cold exposure. A Dutch athlete referred to as the “Iceman,” he currently he set world records for longest swim under ice, fastest barefoot half-marathon ran on ice and snow, longest time spent in direct body contact with ice for times over 1 hour and 53 minutes, and climbing Mount Everest up to 23,600 feet in just shorts and shoes.
His story and feats are inspiring to say the least:
Wim exposes himself to these tremendous challenges, not only to prove that we can do these things, but because he believes that regular cold exposure and controlled breathing can make us healthy, happy, and strong. Scientists have conducted numerous studies on him and his students and found that his methods and cold exposure can reduce inflammation, boost the immune system, increase brown fat (which producing heat when you’re cold), fight obesity, and increase a person’s ability to withstand cold exposure.
While I do not desire to be quite as extreme as Wim Hof or Scott Carney, I believe there is definitely something to be gained through regular cold exposure and breathing. Taking a cold shower is unpleasant. It takes fortitude and mental willpower to embrace the cold on a daily basis. Repeating this act again and again builds up a strength within us to deny our bodies the comfort it desires and exert control over our most primal urges. And, to me, exerting this control over our urges is the most “human” thing we can do.
Other living organisms are driven by urges they cannot control. Down to the cellular level chemical imbalances drive molecules to bond and break in search of equilibrium or “comfort.” Most living things feel and then act. There is no thought; just stimulus and reaction. No real free will. Humans are not all that different.
Even as humans, many of the things we do day-to-day are habits (unthoughtful behaviors) with no real choice or exerted mental effort. Humans are mostly driven by stimulus, but we (unlike most living things) can make some truly free choices. Our ability to make free and thoughtful choices can only be strengthened by repeatedly exerting that ability.
So when I take a cold shower, it’s more than a shower. It’s me exerting my own free will over the side of me that’s just an animal. I am exerting the full potential of my humanity over my base nature to seek equilibrium and comfort.
While embracing the primal feelings of the cold, I feel myself become more human.
In my next post, I’ll talk about two ways to make taking a cold shower easier.