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Habit – Cold Shower

Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test. – Epictetus

Addicts need coffee to wake up daily.  Athletes need a long time to recover from training.  Office workers are sick, stressed, and depressed.  Everyone wants to lose weight, look good, and be happy.
Cold showers.
Wait.  Hold on a minute.  Don’t close the webpage just yet.  Read that Epictetus quote one more time.  Before you pass on cold showers, scan the benefits below.  You get help with all those problems above with a turn of the shower dial.  Plus, there’s an easier way to get started than the bone-chilling, heart-throbbing, ‘mom-didn’t-pay-the-electricity-bill-again’ cold shower you fear.  Put cold showers to the test and you’ll find a healthier, focused, smiling face upon completion of this habit change.
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Lub Dub, Lub Dub
My heart beat out of my chest like an old boxer’s brain rocked hard from a fresh concussive blow.  Starting the day with a cold shower proved unbearable.  I mean they were barely bearable, but bear in mind that this bear likes habits that can stick.  Cold showers felt like Teflon.  Until I made one change.
Each morning for weeks, I turned the water ice cold at 6 am and summoned the strength to step into the shower.  Cold showers felt amazing…afterwards. My focus was sky high like a double shot of espresso.  I recovered faster from workouts.  My skin was only half as dry as normal.  I was zoned in, dialed up, and rocking out for the day ahead in less than three minutes.
But it was unsustainable.  I felt a twinge of fear when I turned the dial cold every morning.  I hesitated to place that first foot in the tub.  I thought, “There must be a better way.”
The change was simple.  Take a normal warm shower first.   Then turn the dial to cold gradually.  Read the habit below to get the benefits without the difficulty described above.  This is a sustainable way to get locked and loaded for your day in under five minutes with a cold shower.
Research on cold water showers is limited.  I’ve listed the most plausible benefits based on the reference links at the end of this post and personal experience.
  • Increased Alertness – Increased breathing equals increased oxygen.  Increased heart rate equals increased blood flow.  Increased oxygen and blood flow equals you taking on the day zoned in like a superhero (Borelli).
  • Better Skin – Hot water dries your skin.  The alternative is cold water, which doesn’t.  With the habit description, you’ll need to tune the water down to room temperature or lower before your cold shower to get this benefit (Borelli).
  • Higher Immunity – Higher white blood cell counts and ability to combat oxidative stress protects you from infection (Borelli, Weil).  Since starting cold showers I’ve reduced my normal month-long colds in the winter down to a single mild weekend-long cold.  I need another one more winter to confirm this finding.
  • Weight Loss – Brown fat (aka. the good fat) burns fat and glucose to keep us warm when exposed to cold.  Cold water exposure could trigger the activation of brown fat, however this New England Journal of Medicine study shows higher activation of brown fat with lower outdoor temperatures not cold showers (Cypess).  It’s logical to think cold water would have the same effect as lower atmospheric temperatures, but not proven.
    • What is brown fat?  There are two types of fat: brown and white.  Brown fat is different from white fat, which is created when we consume more calories than we burn.  Brown fat burns glucose and fat (Ferriss, Gayomali).  You can think of brown fat and white fat like good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL).
    • Why is activating brown fat good?  Activating brown fat is good for you, because it can reduce fat and glucose stores limiting weight gain or triggering weight loss (Cypess, Gayomali).
  • Quicker Workout Recovery – Cold water baths have been shown to reduce swelling and relieve muscle soreness (Borelli), however you won’t get that benefit with the quick cold shower below.  For the pain-tolerant, goal-oriented athletes out there, try a cold bath for 10-20 minutes if you want this benefit.
  • Reduce Depression Symptoms – A study using shows that cold showers release a flood of happy chemicals and electrical signals to your brain (Shevchuk), however more research is recommended with a larger sample set.  While I wouldn’t use cold showers to replace existing therapy, supplementing an existing regimen with cold showers seems reasonable.  I can personally attest to the “rush of happy feelings” immediately afterwards.
Warning – This wouldn’t be my habit of choice if I had high blood pressure (BP) or heart problems.  Read the end of Dr. Weil’s link in the references section for an explanation of how cold constricts blood vessels and causes blood pressure to rise temporarily.  I’m not worried about this personally since I have relatively normal blood pressure, but I wouldn’t chance it if my BP was chronically high or I had other heart issues.
Cold Shower Habit
  • Take your normal warm shower and get clean.
    • Temperature Check #1 – If you normally shower with hot water, turn the temperature down to warm to make the transition to cold water easier.
  • When you’re done with your normal process, turn the water temperature down halfway to the lowest setting.
    • Temperature Check #2 – The water should be close to room temperature, but it may feel cold compared to your last setting.
  • After 30-60 seconds, turn the water down another quarter turn or to the coldest setting.
    • Temperature Check #3 – The water should be cold.
WOW!  You’re more than awake now.  The cold water wakes you up, clears your mind, and jolts your immune system.  As expected you will also be cold, but grab your towel, dry your face, and recognize your accomplishment with a silent or audible “Hell Yeah. I’m awesome!” to start your day.
Congratulating yourself may seem silly, but it’s important.  Every habit has a cue, routine, and reward.  There’s a list of Common Cues below that can trigger your shower habit like waking up.  The routine is the habit, which is a cold shower.  The reward is your choice.  It doesn’t have to be “Hell Yeah.  I’m awesome!”, but can you imagine anyone starting their day that way without a smile on their face?
Cold Water Shower Technique Tips
  • Focus on your breezing.  Countdown from 30 seconds to 1.
  • Aim the water on your big muscles – upper and middle back, glutes, hamstrings, quads, chest.
  • Repeat the 30 second countdown once or twice.
  • Step headfirst under the water at least once.
  • You’re done.
Cold Water Shower Beginner Tips
  • TemperatureWhen you first start, don’t use the coldest setting.
    • Go halfway between room temperature and the lowest setting and stay 30 seconds under the cold water.
    • After a week gradually turn the temperature down to the lowest setting by going a little colder each day.
  • TimeWhen you first start, aim for 30 seconds in the cold.
    • Use the 30 second countdown technique to gradually increase your time to 2 minutes by repeating the countdown 1-3 times.
  • Good EnoughIf using colder temperature or staying in the cold longer makes you want to quit, make it easier by going back to the beginner tips above.
    • Consistency is the key to establishing a new good habit. Repeating an action like clockwork trumps making further improvements to gain more benefits.  The longer you stick with a new habit, the easier it will be to introduce improvements later.
Common Challenges
  • Fear – An existing habit of warm showers and a lack of motivation to change from fear short circuits your willingness to try cold showers.  Cold showers can be bone-shaking cold.  That’s painful.  Our instinctive response is to avoid pain, so we avoid cold showers.  That make perfect sense until you see the benefits.  However, reading the benefits and experiencing them are quite different.  Experiencing them motivates you to continue despite initial discomfort.  Reading them does nothing.  Suspend your fear for a moment and re-read those benefits.  Now read that habit description again and recognize that it’s designed to avoid the pain of the classic cold shower.  That doesn’t mean it won’t be a little uncomfortable.  It will, but you control the dial.  You can turn it colder or warmer at your own discretion.  Don’t make it too hard on yourself.  Turn the dial to a tolerably cold level and gradually turn it down a little more each time.  You have the control to overcome the fear and reap the benefits.  Try a cold shower at least once.  Carpe diem.
“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will.” – W. Clement Stone.  Take action. Turn the dial cold.
Common Cues
  • Turn on Shower – This is the most obvious and possibly the easiest trigger to remind you to take a cold shower.  When you grab the handle to turn on your shower, make a mental note that you’re going to turn it cold when you’re done with your normal shower routine.
  • Upon Waking – Your willpower is strongest at this time.  Plus, you probably take a shower anyway and could use the alertness benefits to start your day.  Go for it.
  • End of Workday – Willpower is weaker here, but it might be the right time for you.  It’s worth an experiment if the morning isn’t right for you.
  • After a Mid-Day Nap – This is a great time to take a cold shower and start ‘Day #2’.  The extra focus from the cold shower can provide what feels like a 2nd productive morning in your day, even though it’s mid-afternoon.
  • After a Workout – Be nice to your body and cool it down with some cold water on your muscles.
  • End of Day – I would not take a cold shower before going to sleep.  It might work for some people, but I’d be wide awake before trying to sleep and that’s not a good combination.  Use this cue at your own risk.

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.

The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. If you fail anywhere along the line it will take away your confidence. You must make yourself succeed every time. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

That inspiring Eleanor Roosevelt quote applies perfectly to the cold shower habit.  You’ve read the benefits: alertness, better skin, immunity, weight loss, recovery, and a happy brain.  Only fear holds you back.  Stare fear in the face and turn the dial cold.  Make it easy on yourself. Turn it cold, but not too cold.  Get started.

Mary Schmitt says, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”  Make a cold shower your one fear you overcome today.  Your future self will thank you.