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 that 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. In 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 a 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 weight lifting 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.

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