The portable ocean
For a lot of people, “get in the sea,” is sound life advice
My routine has, as routinely happens, gone completely to shit. I mentioned that I’d got sick: barring a nagging cough, I am now pretty much better, so naturally my wife and son wanted a turn. The routine for the last couple of weeks looks something like this:
Wake up at 2 am to crying child
Soothe son back to sleep with a story so boring he can’t help but nod off
Wake up at marginally more civilized hour
(Repeat as often as necessary)
Get son up
Look after son
Look after son
And so on. Happily, they’re both getting better, and I am once again finding time to go to the Place Of Picking Up Heavy Things And Putting Them Down Again, with the goal of becoming swole. That’s all very new and pain-inducing, so ask me about it again if I manage to stick at it for more than a few months.
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In the meantime, let’s talk about something in the self-improvement vein I have managed to stick to.
The portable ocean
For a lot of people, “get in the sea,” is sound life advice. It definitely is for me.
I can’t think of many things I like better than ocean swimming. The one real regret in my life, currently, is that I don’t live closer to the sea. In an another universe, or possibly several, there is a version of me who lives in a shack on the beach, talks to driftwood, and swims every day. I definitely prefer my current life, which comes with a comfy house and a wonderful wife and son, but I have no doubt that my mad alternate-universe self is very happy, because he’s near the ocean.
There’s just something special about getting in the sea. I much prefer it to touching grass, which at this time of year is mainly mud with far too many tiny slugs in it. The ocean might be full of uncountable trillions of viruses and millions of dead bodies, but swimming in it is just so relentlessly great that it’s difficult to describe without resorting to poetry. When it is warm, you can float and laze, buoyed by the waves; when it’s cold the shock of immersion surges like electricity.
Then there’s the thrill of surfing1. No matter the time of year or ocean temperature, there’s not much that compares to the rush of that first plunge, as you leap into and under a wave and feel the surge and push of raw power wash over you. To ride a wave is to be humbled and exhilarated all at once: it is to meet a power much greater than you, an inhuman force that will drown and grind and eat you, and — for a moment — dance with it.
People have been seeking out the seaside to improve health for a long time. The Victorians saw “sea air” as a cure for everything from consumption and rheumaticks to good old-fashioned hysteria. Today, there are plenty of efforts to scientifically quantify the benefits of getting wet, but I believe this is one of those cases where you can trust the evidence of your eyes. If this video of what happens when autistic kids are taken surfing doesn’t prompt a shed tear, I’m not sure what will.
I have my own, entirely unscientific, experience of using the ocean as a cure. I used to get head colds a lot as a kid; luckily, we lived near the beach. Once I was old enough to drive I’d go to Matauri Bay, still one of my favourite places in the world, and go bodysurfing. After getting tumbled over the falls a few times my nose would be a fire hydrant of snot; it’s really something, just how voluminous sinuses really are. Push on one nostril, blow hard; bye-bye head cold, hello dubious fish food. Every time I pick up a head cold now, like I did last week, all I can think of is how much I want to go swimming.
But now I’m a landlocked dad with responsibilities and a two-hour round trip from the nearest beach. So what to do?
I take the ocean with me.
That’s right: I’m a Cold Shower Guy.
I’m surprised it took me so long to cotton on to cold showers. I started taking them just over a year ago and, apart from when I’ve been seriously crook, I’ve had one every day since. It began, of course, with a trip to the sea. Some overseas friends were staying over and they found themselves without a ride to Hawke’s Bay. I offered to chauffeur the five-hour drive. It wasn’t exactly altruism: I needed a break from some troubling work stuff and I figured I’d be able to squeeze in a swim. And I did. We went to Ocean Beach — there are about a thousand Ocean Beaches in New Zealand — and I got in the water like a bullet. I was tired and stressed and anxious and it all vanished the moment the icy water closed over my head. It was the middle of winter but I felt like I could have stayed out there for hours.
When I emerged, I felt cleansed, baptized, born again, refreshed, reset. A funny thing happens when you’ve been exerting yourself in cold water; as gravity reasserts itself and circulation returns to your extremities, you feel the warmth of your own blood, the heat of your own skin.
I thought: there’s something in this. And: Isn’t there some guy who advocates cold swimming?
There is. There’s a good chance you’ve heard of him too.
I drove home the same day, and listened to most of The Wim Hof Method on audiobook on the way. I found it… frustrating. It’s a bizarre mix of mysticism, genuinely impressive athletic feats, obvious pseudoscience, some (potentially) real science, weird personality-cult stuff, and — in between all that — an interesting and often tragic life story. Today, these compelling ingredients have combined to make Wim Hof a wealthy bro-science hero. Every damned alt-right-adjacent influencer in the world is taking Instagram reels of self-immersion in a custom-built ice bath and talking up unproven “benefits” like testosterone gain or fat loss. It’s almost enough to put me off cold showers entirely.
As someone who’s prone to sudden enthusiasms and brief fancies, the only reason I ever continue anything for as long as a full year is because I genuinely like it. Cold showers are uncomfortable, but in a comforting way. I start with a normal hot shower (side note: for the longest time in human history, hot showers would have been an exception rather than a norm) and when I’m pretty much done I flip the shower knob to the full-bore cold setting. It’s a shock, every time. The cold water hits my back, and I’ll gasp, or involuntarily yip. Spin around, soak the chest, plunge my head under. It’s awful; but then something in my brain trips and I’m in the cold ocean, a wave passing over my head in that muffled-thunder way, and everything seems to slow and stop.
The time I actually spend under the cold water varies, but it’s usually anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes. No matter how long I spend, when I hop out, there’s that buzzy warm feeling. Those old, unhinged “How it feels to chew 5 Gum” ads are the closest I can come to articulating both how cold showers are simultaneously silly and superlative:
But the cold shower connection to woo and pseudocience and fundamentally shitty people remains disturbing. It takes next to no effort to find social media feeds full of griftfluencers boasting about how their cold plunge habit has
made given them even bigger dicks (Sign up now for my cold plunge crash course and SAVE!) It’s got to the point where if you say “cold shower” three times in a mirror a goose-pimpled Wim Hof cultist will appear and drag you into an ice bath. What’s particularly annoying is that conflating vastly different forms of cold exposure seems common: taking cold showers is quite different to (and an order of magnitude less dangerous than) swimming in an ice-covered stream.
And there are pitfalls lurking outside social media. There’s plenty of “science” on this stuff that just… isn’t. One initially legit-looking literature review I found via Google Scholar breaks down the various applications of hydrotherapy (doing stuff to bodies with water, cold or otherwise) and comes up with a long but non-exhaustive list:
“[hydrotherapy is] used to improve immunity and for the management of pain, CHF, MI, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, asthma, PD, AS, RA, OAK, FMS, anorectal disorders, fatigue, anxiety, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, hyperthermia, labor, etc.”
But a second glance reveals that this is one of those cases where Lee Reid’s red flag index isn’t even necessary: both authors hail from the “SDM College of Naturopathy and Yogic Sciences.”
So is there any real science that showcases the benefits of cold showers?
Perhaps surprisingly, yes.
One study in the Netherlands published in the journal PLOS ONE found that cold shower-ers called in sick 29 percent less than a non-cold-showering control group: good news for our capitalist overlords, who may soon find a novel use for office fire-prevention systems. Then there’s a neuroscience study in the journal Biology which found, essentially, that people like cold showers: “We measured brain connectivity and self-reported emotional state before and after cold-water immersion. Our findings showed that participants felt more active, alert, attentive, proud, and inspired and less distressed and nervous after having a cold-water bath.” The study also found measurable differences in brain activity, which seem to corroborate that “cold water can make you feel good.”
It’s useful that the science also seems to show that cold showers are unlikely to be harmful to people living without known health issues (the Netherlands study, which was on a notably large cohort of 3018 participants, did not turn up any cold-shower-related adverse events) but I wonder, for the layperson, if the research is strictly necessary. To me, cold showers are a perfect example of what self-improvement could and should be; free, accessible, and possibly even fun. Sure, they’re advocated for by some questionable types, but who cares?2 If there’s no harm — and potentially some benefit — in an activity, there’s no reason to leave it as the exclusive bastion of griftfluencers and alt-right weirdos.
So can I point to any health benefits from of a year of cold showering? Absolutely not. I seem to be getting exactly the same number of colds and aches and pains as I always did. The closest I can come to a health benefit is that despite the every-time “what the fuck!” minor body horror of suddenly being pricked with ten thousand tiny icicles, I feel absolutely stoked for a good few minutes after getting out. That’s enough benefit for me, and I’m not the only one. I’m sending this out on the winter solstice, and all over the country people are braving some seriously chilly waters to take a shortest-day dip. And from the smiles I see on the socials, they really like it.
There might be a life lesson to be learned from cold showering, specifically that it is possible to learn to handle or even enjoy hard or uncomfortable things. This is what I’m choosing to take away from it, but as always I want to emphasise that we’re all different and that your personal mileage may vary. I don’t want to burden anyone with yet another fashionable self-improvement thing that may offer nothing more than a cloying, nagging feeling of obligation. Not meditating? Not journaling? Not cold showering? Big deal. If it sounds interesting, give it a go. Keep going if it works for you, but please feel no guilt in abandoning it if it doesn’t — or even if you just need a break.
These mostly aren’t real questions but I typed a question mark at the end of each one so you can imagine each one being said with an upward inflection?
I want to do cold showers?
Then do it.
I don’t want to do cold showers?
Then don’t do it.
I’m keen to try it but I’m worried I won’t like it?
Try it, and if you like it, you can keep doing it. If you don’t like it, you can stop.
So I really don’t have to do this?
No, you really don’t.
Are there any medical reasons to not do take cold showers?
With the obvious disclaimer that I am not a doctor or even anything vaguely approaching a doctor, I know of only a few conditions that might preclude cold showers. They are: epilepsy, migraines, and heart problems. If you have any of those, talk to a real doctor before subjecting your body to avoidable, optional cold shocks.
I’m worried I might enjoy taking cold showers?
You might. That’s a risk we bold self-improvers all take. But, importantly, you do not have to start taking Tik-Toks of yourself talking to the camera while chilling out in a cold shower. That is extremely optional.
I love this! Imma go break some ice and jump in a frozen stream!?
Yeah, nah. Taking a cold shower and plunging yourself in freezing water are quite different, in a similar way to how you might enjoy sitting by an open fire but you probably shouldn’t get in it. That was more joke than metaphor, to be honest. Unlike setting yourself on fire, icy bathing has a long cultural heritage and there are valid reasons to enjoy an freezing swim — but it’s best done in the absence of dangerous health conditions and in the company of friends who can haul you out of the water lest you start dying.
So. What do you reckon? Cold showers: yeah or nah? If you’ve got any low-key mascochistic self-improvement habits, I’m all ears.
Bodysurfing, bodyboarding, surfing, paddleboarding: it all counts. Stand-up surfing purists will hate me but luckily I don’t care.
It’s like when a person turns down meat at a dinner and some Uncle Dickhead adopts a conspiratorial look and intones “You know, Hitler was a vegetarian.” Well done, asshole. Bad people can do virtuous things. It doesn’t make the virtuous things bad.