You know that feeling after you finish a really hard workout? When your blood is flowing, your skin is glowing, and you feel like you can take on the world? Imagine having that feeling every morning, without even having to work out.
If you’re thinking that’s too good to be true, well, you’re partly right. Because in order to experience that endorphin euphoria sans exercise, you’ll have to immerse yourself in a freezing-cold shower or bath for a few minutes every day.
I’m always on the hunt for productivity hacks, so I was intrigued when I heard about the potential benefits of taking cold showers on one of my favorite podcasts. Proponents of “cold therapy” say that cold showers are a free way boost your immune system, energy, and productivity.
Improving any one of those metrics, much less all of them at once, would obviously help with one’s overall life satisfaction. But, is anything really worth swapping out a nice hot shower for two minutes of teeth-chattering, shivering torture?
I decided to find out for myself by taking an ice-cold shower every day for 30 days. Here’s how it went.
Days 1-10: The Worst of It
Continuing the exercise analogy, beginning this routine was the hardest part. Except, this was worse than exercise, because most exercise regimens aren’t instantly terrifying.
You generally ease into a workout. Waking up and stepping right under a stream of ice-cold water is like opening the door to your bathroom and finding a CrossFit coach who starts screaming at you and forces you to do thousands of burpees.
The only way I could get myself to step under the frigid water after just waking up was to count down from five to one, close my eyes, and go for it.
It’s hard to recount the experience of the first 10 seconds of my initial cold shower, because all my senses were overwhelmed. All brain activity ceased and was replaced with one all-encompassing thought: “SO COLD. SO, SO COLD.”
The next 20 seconds were even worse, because I was actually cognizant of what was happening. “I did this to myself. I am an insane person. What am I doing?”
Surprisingly, after about 30 seconds my body started to calm down. I could think like a rational person again. I no longer wanted to jump out of the shower at all costs, or scream at the top of my lungs. I could even grab a bar of soap without fear that my shivers would send it flying out of my hand. But don’t get me wrong: I was still cold and miserable.
For those first 10 days, I would set my phone alarm to go off after two minutes of shower time. Hearing that buzzer evoked the same feelings I used to get when I heard the recess bell during a boring lesson in grade school. Sweet, sweet freedom had arrived at last.
I would hop out of the shower, towel off, and take a look at myself in the mirror. My eyes were bulging. My chest and cheeks were flushed like I’d just run a mile. And you know that foggy feeling in your head you sometimes have for the first 10 to 20 minutes after waking up? That was gone. Blasted out of existence, like sooty siding exposed to a power washer.
I felt alert and energized. The feeling would generally last for 30 to 45 minutes, at which point I would come back down to reality, ready for my morning coffee.
It was during these first 10 days that I did a deep dive into the research behind cold thermogenesis. There’s a lot to take in, but the upshot was this: Cold exposure can potentially help you boost your endorphin levels, build up the right kind of fat, lose weight, help combat depression, and even reduce the size of tumors.
Basically, cold exposure is like P-90x, meditation, and Adderall all rolled into one. I was sold on cold.
Days 11-20: Slowly Getting Better
Right around the two-week mark of waking up and soldiering into the freezing water, something strange happened. I actually began to enjoy it. In the same way you know a workout is going to suck but you do it anyway, you can realize you’re going to be miserable for 90 to 120 seconds and still look forward to the end result.
I started to enjoy looking at my eyes in the mirror before I got in the shower. They usually looked tired, sunken, and a little glassy. Then, I would look at them again post-shower. They were wider than if I’d seen a ghost after chugging two espressos.
It was during this period that I really started to notice some psychological benefits. I felt more ready to take on challenges during the day. After all, what could possibly phase me, having already dealt with something brutally uncomfortable so early in the day?
I should insert the caveat that I live in California, and I did this challenge during the summer. If I was trying to do this during a Midwestern winter, I imagine it would be considerably harder to motivate myself to get into a cold shower. Or maybe I could just walk to my car with my shirt off and achieve the same effect, with the added benefit of freaking out my neighbors. (Someone please try this and report back on your results.)
Days 21-30: When the Absurd Becomes the Routine
By the final stretch of my 30-day challenge, I no longer had to motivate myself with pump-up music and psychological tricks to get under the cold water each morning. I just did it, understanding that the benefits outweighed the discomfort.
This is when I really felt the parallels between what I was doing with the showers and how I thought about money. Once you get in the habit of saving, budgeting, and cutting out unnecessary spending, those initially painful tasks get much easier. They stop becoming painstaking chores and instead become routine. Sure, you might still want that Apple Watch when the ad pops up, but you can appreciate that the joys of making progress toward your financial goals are inherently more satisfying than one expensive little gadget.
This is also when I started experimenting with showers at different times of the day. I found them to be just as useful in the afternoon as they were in the morning. A 2 p.m. ice-cold shower is like a cup of coffee without the jitters, expense, and possible sleep disturbances.
Feeling groggy after lunch? Instead of hoovering another latte, try hopping into cold water for a couple of minutes. Got a late-night obligation, but worn out from a long day? Try a cold blast before heading out, and see how much more alert you are.
I feel like a 30-day cold shower challenge is worthwhile for anyone who tends to drag a bit in the morning. You might even find yourself saving money on your coffee habit, as you’ll need less caffeine once you start your day off with an endorphin rush.
As for me, I’ve continued my cold-shower regimen, even past my 30-day goal — and I have no plans on stopping anytime soon.