Person sits in ice bath after doing Wim Hof Method breathwork class

What is the Wim Hof Method and how could ice baths improve our health?

Last updated on Tuesday 23 April 2024

With temperatures in the UK soaring, a number of us are looking for ways to beat the heat this summer and the thought of jumping into an ice bath is looking more and more attractive. Whilst we are in the mood for something cool and refreshing, let's look at the Wim Hof Method and what cold therapy can do for our health and wellbeing.

You may have heard of the extreme athlete Wim Hof; a man who has been taking the health, sports, and wellbeing community by storm for a couple of years now. BBC One's Freeze the Fear brought Wim Hof to our screens and has introduced more and more people to the benefits of cold therapy and breathwork- as they said on the show "there's power in the cold shower".

Wim Hof is known as the "Iceman" because he loves being in freezing temperatures. For over two decades, he has been plunging into ice baths, running barefoot through the snow, and climbing mountains in shorts. And Wim's ability to withstand extreme temperatures isn't an isolated skill—he can teach anyone how to do it. The key is deep breathing exercises.

Wim Hof is a Dutch adventurer who holds more than 20 world records for his feats of endurance, from running a half-marathon barefoot in snow to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in shorts.

His most impressive record, however, may be for sitting in a tub of ice for nearly two hours whilst his core temperature remained stable!

Using nothing but his mind, Wim Hof says he can withstand extremely cold temperatures that would make an average person extremely ill. He also uses his mind-over-matter skills to overcome extreme heat, dehydration, and even fight off illnesses. Wim Hof has claimed that he's able to control his immune system, boost his metabolism, and switch off stress if he wants to. So how does he do it?

He has developed his method through a combination of breathing and meditating and has shared his knowledge so that others may benefit from his practices. Wim Hof Method trained practitioners help clients to control their nervous system through breathing and meditation — which can be used to improve health and wellness.

Some of the reported benefits of this practice include: fighting inflammation, lowering stress levels, improving sleep quality (and therefore energy), boosting immunity against viruses/diseases, regulating blood sugar levels and weight loss.

So what can the Wim Hof Method do for our health and wellbeing and how does it work?

Harnessing the power of breath

Woman takes part in Wim Hof Method training with experienced practitioner for support

Wim Hof’s method is based on three powerful pillars. Breathing, cold therapy, and commitment. Breathing is a key component of the method, and Wim Hof has spent years perfecting his breathwork practices.

The Wim Hof Method is the ultimate life hack, according to many of its fans and it's been used by many people for a variety of reasons ranging from increasing their physical endurance (for example during ultra-marathons) to relieving anxiety and stress.

One of the main functions of this method is to connect you more deeply to your body, so that you can control your bodily reactions to stress. There is a breathwork method that focuses on controlling one's breath using dynamic inhalation, controlled exhalation, and long breath holds. This controlled deep breathing increases and maintains oxygen levels and is a major contributor to a sense of relaxation. When you are anxious or stressed your breathing can be shallow, fast and irregular- breathwork is a way of tackling that.

The Wim Hof method uses meditation to control the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls all of our involuntary functions including heart rate, digestion, breathing and even how we sweat! Through controlled breathing, we can activate parts of our ANS which will then help us deal with stress, anxiety or even pain.

So breathwork is great for calming the mind and getting you to a mental state of relaxation. So what does cold therapy do?


Using ice to recover, relax, and improve mental health

A person sits in a large ice bath and looks peaceful and concentrated

Ice baths have been used to refresh and invigorate the body for thousands of years. Research suggests that ice baths may lower inflammation and help recover from the pain caused by exercise- but how does it do this?

You know how you ice a knock or a bruise to reduce swelling? Well, think of the ice bath as an ice pack for your entire body. Reduced inflammation and increased recovery are aided by controlling the flow of blood and other fluids around your body. Your blood vessels restrict with cold water and dilate as your body warms up, manually moving fluids around the body and rushing blood and nutrients to your cells as you warm up.

Cold therapy can also reduce anxiety and stress by building our tolerance and resilience to it. When your body is submerged in ice-cold water you enter a fight or flight mode, essentially an induced stress response. By tolerating the ice cold, practising breathing and meditation, and allowing yourself to relax into the feeling of the icy sensation you train your body to have the same reaction in similarly stressful situations. Therefore you become more able to regulate your emotions and reactions to stress and anxiety.

Additional ways the ice bath component of the Wim Hof Method is said to improve overall health includes:

Using the body's energy stores: Your body needs to work a lot harder to stay warm when submerged in cold or ice water therefore increasing your body's energy expenditure.

Improves body's circulation: When your body is cold your blood rushes to your organs to keep you warm. Your blood needs to be pumped around the body faster to keep your organs warm thus improving circulation. Many athletes choose to use ice baths after they've done intense sport in order to improve circulation and healing.

Improves quality of sleep: One of the biggest enemies of a good night's sleep is stress. Using cold therapy improves sleep by increasing our resilience to stress and giving us the tools to manage day-to-day stresses that keep us awake at night.

By overcoming an induced stressful situation you can boost your confidence, improve your mood, improve your willpower, strengthen your determination, and work towards better mental health.

Is the Wim Hof Method right for me?

Person sits in ice bath whilst doing Wim Hof Method breathwork

As with any fitness or wellbeing activity that has an effect on the body, precautions must be considered before taking part in the Wim Hof Method. Trained practitioners would advise against participation during pregnancy or if one is epileptic or experiences seizures.

People with cardiovascular issues, or any other serious health conditions, should always consult a medical professional before starting the Wim Hof Method.

The Wim Hof Method has a solid fanbase amongst professional sportspeople, endurance athletes, and wellbeing aficionados who use the method to promote positive mental health, resilience, and motivation. 

Research into the Wim Hof Method is ongoing but results show that the method is a particularly effective way to manage stress, especially when coupled with an active and healthy lifestyle. 

If you are curious about the Wim Hof Method, but not ready to commit to cold therapy, you can try out a breathwork workshop with a professional Wim Hof instructor.

If you are ready to take the plunge into the full Wim Hof Method (ice bath and all) then there are a number of Wim Hof Method experiences in and around Bristol that can introduce you to this popular wellbeing practice.

Feeling inspired? Discover more wellbeing experiences on Yuup here!

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