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Take The Plunge

Should you add cold plunging to your healthy routine?

By Karen Kwan

If you’re not a big fan of winter, the idea of willingly immersing yourself in cold water won’t sound very appealing. And yet, more and more people have recently become cold plunge or ice bath regulars. A practice common in Finland and now more widely popularized in part by Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete and motivational speaker, cold immersion therapy incorporates breathing exercises and meditation with plunging into water that is typically between 10 and 15 degrees Celsius. The practice is said to offer a number of benefits including improved mood, better circulation, revved-up metabolism, a decrease in inflammation and better sleep, to name just a few. 

Curious about the trend after a few sessions at Othership (a sauna and ice-bath space in Toronto), I recently put myself into the hands of the team at Unbounded – an experiential lifestyle brand that holds cold plunge sessions and events around the city – and attended Cold Camp for my first ice hole plunges. 

Held at The Trace at Oak Lake resort in Havelock, Ont., Unbounded’s Cold Camp may change any ice-bath non-believers’ minds. What can you expect? Breathwork, intention setting and a cycle of guided sessions from the sauna to the cold lake. In addition to the reported health benefits of cold therapy, more than anything, the people behind Unbounded believe their cold-camp retreat helps people rediscover what winter can look like. “People tend to hibernate and close down physically and mentally a bit,” says Unbounded co-founder Nick McNaught. Cold camp both challenges you and helps you carry on with positivity and a zest for life, he says, while also helping some people take their wellness to another level thanks to the physical benefits. To round out your camp experience, when you’re not cycling through hot and cold cycles, there’s a hot tub, bonfires (including one night with live music), an evening social with the other campers and nature walks.

For my first ice-hole plunge at Cold Camp, I could only immerse myself to chest level, and I was grateful to be holding hands with the other campers. I got out as soon as the two minutes were done (two minutes being the optimal exposure time to reap the health benefits of the cold). On Day 2, I went in one on one with a guide, whose calm demeanour helped me panic less; he got me to take long, deep breaths as I immersed myself a little deeper in the frigid water. 

Buoyed by that successful plunge, I went back into the lake that same morning for a plunge by myself. As I worked on taking longer breaths, I looked around at the expanse of snow covering the frozen lake as fluffy snowflakes fell from the sky, creating a surreal snow globe experience. At that moment, it was just me and the cold – there was that mental clarity McNaught spoke of. All of the noise and the nagging thoughts and stresses that constantly run through my mind faded away.

But was the cold immersion improving everything from my circulation to my mood? I can’t speak to the long-term benefits as I haven’t maintained a regular cold-plunge routine, but I can tell you that I left Cold Camp embracing winter a little more and feeling proud of being able to work through that flight-or-flight response. Evidence of the physical health benefits may be just anecdotal so far, but just as I appreciate the mental stamina required for running a marathon, I thrive on the boost I get from knowing I have the psychological strength needed to withstand cold plunging. 

Intrigued? Before taking the plunge, know that there are risks to consider, including frostbite, hypothermia, heart arrhythmias and heart attacks. Be sure to speak to your doctor first before trying your first cold-immersion therapy.

KAREN KWAN is a freelance health, travel and lifestyle writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @healthswellness and on Instagram @healthandswellness.

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