Wim Hof and Stylist's Meena Alexander go for a cold-water dip.

“5 things I learned during a cold-water dip with Wim Hof”

Posted by for Wellbeing

The Wim Hof wellness method is world-renowned, and now its creator is putting eight celebrities through their paces in new BBC One series Freeze The Fear. Stylist’s Meena Alexander takes a dip with the man himself to discover the benefits of cold-water immersion.

It’s around the time I lose feeling in my thighs that I begin to question whether taking my cue from an extreme athlete was a good idea. Wim Hof earned his nickname “The Iceman” thanks to the list of mind-bending feats he’s achieved in his 62 years, including running a half marathon barefoot in the Arctic and breaking the world record for swimming under ice. And here I am, a woman who can’t even bear to part with her duvet in the morning, lowering myself into 9°C water next to him at a lido in south London.

Discomfort aside, it is an honour to be coached in cold-water immersion by the man who made it a global phenomenon. From Oprah Winfrey to Gwyneth Paltrow, he’s got disciples around the world who swear by his method for soothing anxiety, boosting energy and improving overall wellbeing. At first, he admits, he was thought of as woo-woo for extolling the virtues of cold water so loudly, but now there’s science to back up what he’s always felt: that exposing our bodies to low temperatures can calm inflammation and trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, the area responsible for combatting our stress responses. In short, it makes us feel great.

And now everybody wants in. Whether it’s in reaction to a pandemic that made us realise the restorative power of nature or simply a recommitment to wellness, Hof’s method is taking over this year as he publishes new book The Wim Hof Method and begins work on a Hollywood adaptation of his life, set to star Joseph Fiennes. A new BBC One series, Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof, is also airing, following Hof and eight celebrities including presenter Gabby Logan and rapper Professor Green as they undergo extreme challenges in the Italian Alps. It is officially cool to be cold.

And though I’m an unlikely person to jump on such a chilly bandwagon, my own experience with The Iceman was undeniably eye-opening. From the power of breathwork to the mental health benefits, here’s what I learned. 

Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof: Diane Buswell breaks the ice.
Strictly's Diane Buswell on Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof.

The water must be “uncomfortably” cold

When it comes to cold-water immersion, the old adage “no pain, no gain” applies. To “Wim Hof” the right way (yes, his name is a verb now), the water must be at an “uncomfortably low temperature” to maximise the rush of endorphins and affect your whole body’s physiology, he tells me. “Just lower yourself in like you would get into a bath – try not to gasp, just take slow, full, deep breaths.” His voice sounds very far away as alarm bells start ringing in my brain; the water is so cold that it feels like it’s burning me. 

But 30 seconds later, everything goes numb. An eerie sense of calm comes over me, and I can feel my heart rate slowing. “Am I dying?” I think. “Your body is completely in control of the situation,” says Hof, beatific next to me. “It’s adapting. Everything is fine.” Weirdly, I no longer feel like getting out. 

Learning to master your breathing is key

A central pillar of the Wim Hof method is breathwork, both before and during the cold-water immersion. He coaches me in deep breathing – expanding my diaphragm to its full potential – and then holding my breath for a minute to slow down my heart rate and calm the nervous system. Mastering this technique and practising it when you enter the cold, whether it’s an ice bath or your shower at home, helps to counteract the initial shock and send signals to your brain that all is well. Breathing deeply in the water, I reach an almost meditative state. 

The mental health benefits are undeniable

Hof talks a lot about the transformations he’s seen in people with anxiety and depression after they took up cold-water swimming. “It improves the mind-body connection – when you’re in the cold, your brain can’t focus on anything else and that’s really useful for breaking negative thought patterns,” he says. For me, it’s the sense of accomplishment that gives me a boost for the rest of the day, the knowledge that I’ve done a hard thing and can now tackle anything else with confidence. It’s a powerful feeling. 

It gives your skin a serious glow

Immediately noticeable, too, was what was happening on the outside. For hours afterwards, my whole body tingles with that invigorated feeling you get after a body brush or a really brisk massage, and my face looks tighter and more radiant than it has all winter. This, I learned, is thanks to the constricting of capillaries as my skin adapts to the temperature, tightening the facial tissue, and increased circulation around the rest of my body, which makes skin look plump and glowy. No wonder Bella Hadid was spotted dunking her face into a bowl of ice backstage at fashion week…

It’s easy to get hooked

Believe me, I have long been a sceptic of anything involving cold water – even a blast under the shower used to be a step too far for me – but the feeling you get after Wim Hoffing is a bonafide natural high. I can see how people get hooked, and though I won’t be submerging myself in ice like Hof himself every single day, I’m certainly going to brave the elements again when I need a quick body-and-mind boost.

Freeze The Fear With Wim Hof starts on BBC One on Tuesday 12 April at 9pm.

Images: Nick Wall / BBC

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist magazine’s features editor.