“On the off-chance that anyone fancies a cold dip and hot sauna after, bring towel and swimmers” emailed my yoga instructor, two days before Christmas.
With cabin fever already beckoning, I dug out my least awful swimsuit without giving the cold/hot message too much thought. Until I arrived at the local unheated lido to see that the water temperature was six degrees.
Exactly how cold is six degrees Celsius?
I know now that it’s colder than wading into the North Sea any time in March, when the temperature hovers around seven degrees. I’d once swum off our eastern shoreline in December (when it’s weirdly a few degrees warmer) when I’d been tasked by the Today newspaper in 1992 with finding Freddie the Dolphin. Injured and hanging out in Amble Harbour, north of Newcastle, he was apparently lonely and up for visitors. I hired a boat whose skipper gave me a half wetsuit and pushed me into the freezing sea where the photographer kept me for 25 minutes, first waiting for Freddie to appear from the inky depths (one of the scariest moments of my life) and then while he barked “smile, smile, smile” while my shaking hands tried to stroke Freddie’s shammy leather back.
My only defence is that it was the Nineties. Today’s millennials would have flatly refused, citing health and safety regulations. The whole extraordinary episode evidently sharpened my senses, a common side effect of cold water therapy, because I recall writing up the piece extremely quickly in a local pub and filing it over the phone.
Anyway, back to the waters of London’s Parliament Hill Lido which on that sunny December morning looked so very blue and so very freezing. We followed the example of our north European cousins and went into its new sauna first for a quick warm-up, where the temperature was a cosy 80 degrees. The bodies inside were as pink as newborns and one man was physically shaking, having just completed twenty lengths in the icy waters of the 60 metre pool. Mad.
I intended to do no more than jump in and scoot up a steps within seconds.
The effect on the body of immersing it in freezing water is instantaneous, regardless of how much body fat you hold, and is one of the biggest jolts you can ever give it. Otherwise known as the cold shock response, cold receptors in your skin are suddenly stimulated, causing an involuntary gasp, several in my case, followed usually by hyperventilation or very rapid breathing. Your heart rate rapidly shoots up too – so step away anyone with high blood pressure or heart disease – as blood is diverted from extremities to your main internal organs. Yet after less than ten minutes back in the sauna I wanted to repeat that surge of exhilaration. So we plunged in one more time and then ran into the changing rooms, savouring that delicious feeling of your blood returning to the outer edges of your body as you warm up.
I felt invincible for the rest of the day and was back for more in the new year. This time it was busier and everyone in the sauna seemed to be talking about cold water therapy. Three young women were chatting to ‘James’ about their new addiction. “I dreamt about it recently,” said one. “It’s really helping me get over my broken relationship,” confessed another. All three took cold showers at home (tap water comes out at around seven degrees) which prompted queries from James about where they got their power showers, obvs, until the conversation switched to cold water therapy podcast recommendations.
I blame Gwyneth Paltrow and Hugh Fearnly-Wittingstall, both of whom have relayed the wellness benefits of cold water in the last few weeks. Our favourite double-barrelled named chef tried it out on the TV show Easy Ways to Live Well in a bid to tackle his anxiety. He joined a group of cold water converts in a painful 4.3 degree lido and in between loud gasps for breath, was the only one screaming: “OH MY GOD this is so unbelievably cold, it’s SO cold”, while a gaggle of 60 year old matrons, casually treading water, giggled from afar.
There was less laughter but better swimwear on display when Gwyneth Paltrow sent her minions out to Lake Tahoe for The Goop Lab’s Cold Comfort episode on Netflix, which also aired in January (BTW you have to watch the one on female orgasms). Could freezing water stop their LA whining and general malaise? With them to the lake went one of the world’s leading cold water protagonists, a Dane called Wim Hof, aka The Iceman. He looks like the wild man of Borneo and has done some pretty wild things in his time, including running a half marathon on his bare feet in the snow and climbing Mount Everest in his shorts. Within a few days, his deep breathing technique had turned a bunch of strung-out goopsters into hardy cold water swimmers who barely gasped as they came up from the freezing lake for air.
So how exactly does the cold-water therapy help? TV personality Dr Zoe Williams said on Fearnley-Whittingstall programme: “One way to think of it is that our stress ‘alert system’ has become over-sensitive in today’s world, and a short blast of freezing cold water every morning reminds it what a real threat feels like, and makes those everyday irritabilities less likely to trigger the full stress response.”
My second plunge into the lido, by now a balmy eight degrees in January, saw me jump into the middle of the pool and swim ten metres to the steps. Initially, all I could think of was that frozen water scene in the film Titantic. On the night of the real disaster, the water was something like minus two degrees and Kate Winslet’s Rose would have frozen solid alongside Jack with his memorably blue lips. But puffing through that ten metre swim to the ladder felt totally doable. In fact I did the hot sauna/cold plunge routine three times and then strode across Hampstead Heath afterwards with wet hair plastered to my head, but feeling like I was luminous. That night I fell asleep instantly and woke up at 5 am instead of the usual 4 am. Result.
Apart from being mood-enhancing, cold water plunging can help achy joints by constricting blood vessels and reducing inflammation. It also releases brain positive endorphins, which is good for depressives, triggers the aforementioned sleep hormones, and there is even talk of it generally making you live longer. Biologist and Harvard Professor David Sinclair, who looks a very young 51, explains that slowing down the ageing process may be connected with the cold turning bad white fat into good brown fat.
“Specifically, the sirtuin-3 gene gets activated by cold, which promotes the browning of fat, which we believe is good for us. Brown fat is full of mitochondria that use energy and speeds up the metabolism.”
I am contemplating daily cold showers and in the meantime dunk my head into a sink of cold water after washing my hair in a bid to leave it super shiny. Add that to the cold pool therapy and I’m slowly getting there.
Wim Hof has said: “At one point the cold will feel just as comfortable as wearing your favourite pyjamas.”
Well, maybe. I’m just not sure Gill would ever agree.