Cold Exposure – Not One Size Fits All

Probably the thing that annoys me most when I read health information is how articles fail to define their audience. What is good for some must be good for all. The classic example is coffee. Yes my favorite beverage has had a lot of positive health buzz about it in recent years, but not everyone can handle the caffeine. The blanket statements that coffee will do wonders are false for the person who is sensitive to stimulants.

To quote the Diff’rent Strokes theme song:

Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
What might be right for you, may not be right for some.

Cold exposure is another case where I believe the response and benefit can vary a lot from person to person. Because someone lost weight using cold exposure doesn’t mean that everyone will lose weight in that manner. It has been almost 2 years since the post Peat-atarians and Fear of Hormetic Stress in which I criticized what I saw as a simplistic rejection of cold exposure as stressful by Danny Roddy.

Since then I have been trying to reconcile his position with mine. When is cold exposure beneficial and when is it stressful? And is the best path always to avoid cold exposure to minimize the stress response? I’m going to carve out a middle-ground opinion that makes sense to me.

Avoid Stacking Stressors

We don’t want to avoid all forms of stress. Stress that causes an adaptation that makes us stronger is something we should embrace. However, I think it is important not to seek multiple varieties of stress simultaneously. Weight training, fasting, cold exposure, and even low-carb diets are stressors. Doing them together amplifies the stress and I suspect the body’s ability to learn a positive response from the experiment.

We also don’t want to engage in a stressor that exceeds our body’s ability to recover or is unsafe. The key to having hormetic stress work for you is it needs to be brief and it needs to end.

Imagine a person with poor sleep living a stressed life. Maybe it is a bad job, poor relationships, or an awful commute. Perhaps there are already symptoms that indicate stress levels are high such as a low body temperature and dry skin. In that case, it makes more sense to address those chronic stressors before engaging in cold exposure. But that is not a blanket statement either. Some people could experience stress reduction from cold exposure. I do. For the majority, heat in the form of saunas or steam rooms is probably a better path.

If I have a bad night of sleep, I now know instinctively not to lift weights, fast, or do any cold exposure. It can wait for another day.

End Cold Exposure Abruptly

When we end a weightlifting session, the most common advice is to eat some fast-digesting carbs and protein and then rest. The stress is over and now it is time to rebuild and emerge stronger. The same is true for cold exposure. Once you’ve experienced exposure, warm up quickly. Persistent cold even at a lower level doesn’t tell the body the stress has ended. The faster you warm up, the more benefit you get from the cold exposure. This is my opinion from 6 years of cold exposure.

I was thinking about the difference between my Freeze the Animal swims in Puget Sound and the Polar Bear Plunge held at the same beach. My exposure was longer. I was alone. And it took me a long time to warm up. The Polar Bear Plunge was brief exposure. You were surrounded by your neighbors. The spirit was one of fun and excitement. There were fires on the beach, blankets, and warm beverages to quickly warm you up when you emerged from the water.

Same water temperature, two completely different experiences. One stressful. One joyful.

polar bear swim

From the 2009 Polar Bear Swim. 

Listen To Yourself

Have you noticed that the vast majority of those that celebrate cold exposure are young males? And of that group many are endomorphs? It is my belief that the stocky man with excess fat is the one most likely to benefit from cold exposure. Endomorphs in addition to having higher fat levels also tend to have more muscle. Muscle does throw off heat. And males, especially younger ones, tend to have more muscle.

Since we all aren’t resilient stocky young men with excess body fat, dialing in your own level of cold exposure is something you’ll need to figure out for yourself. No blog is going to know you better than yourself. For many the ideal amount of cold exposure will be zero. These days I take cool – not cold – showers and wear short-sleeve shirts even when others are wearing jackets. For me knowing I am temperature resilient across a wide range of temperatures is stress-reducing. Others might not feel the same way.


Add yours

  1. Stephan Raczak

    Nov 20, 2014 — 12:04 pm

    That girl in the picture has a flying fist coming her way 🙂

  2. I also think we look for very clear linear solutions, i.e. this will fix that, but life is far more complex, and so are the stresses that are unique to each of us. Maybe we just have to find ways to live that feel good for ourselves in the long term. And that sweet spot and what it entails will be different for each person, depending on what is going on in their lives at any given time.

  3. @Stephan – Never noticed that before.

    @Pauline – I agree.

  4. Whachu talkin’ bout, Michael?

  5. Hi, just found this. 40 yo male, losing weight with a combination of lchf and 5:2 diet (although my 2 days are 36ish hour fasts eg Sunday evening to Tuesday morning)
    Started having cold baths (6-8 degree Celsius) to see if they helped with weight loss and (pre diet) but found them really unpleasant but did find they pretty much eliminated my bad back. After hurting my back again whilst on the diet I’ve started the cold baths again, about 40 minutes is tolerable with warm hat and gloves whilst watching something funny (I have found ‘serious’ really isn’t distracting enough!) I am 188cm 94kg 21% bf (101kg January 1st) been mixing the lchf and cold baths for a fortnight. Lost about 4kg in that fortnight. Weigh myself every morning on waking and have seen a serious downward trend in bf as measured by an old tanita bf scale (I treat the value as indicative only and I only pay attention to the trend, which has pretty much reflected what I see in the mirror but this time it is dropping on a steeper slope than I am used to seeing) and my love handles seem to be reducing preferentially when usually they are the last to go (when sat in the bath the water basically reaches the base of the sternum (covering the abdominal body fat)
    I guess I pretty much fit your profile of a responder, still carry a reasonable amount of muscle for my age but high bf %, just wish the three hours after the cold bath weren’t so unpleasant!
    Sorry for the long ramble, Mike

  6. @Mike Ede – My concern would be you might be too much too fast. I believe the benefit of cold exposure comes from warming up quickly. Otherwise it is a stressor. Stress can crush metabolism. I’d be testing your morning body temps. You don’t want to lose a bunch of fat and then have your temps drop. Otherwise you’ll likely gain it back.

  7. Hi Mas,
    Agree completely, never experienced weight loss like it (obviously a bunch of it is water weight) interesting none the less. Off to read your link.

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