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Cold Showers vs Ice Baths

Updated: Jan 23

How do cold showers anger and ice baths invigorate?

Cold shower water pours over the back of Seager's head.
I started cold showers because Mike Cernovich wrote about them in his book, Gorilla Mindset. Although they've always made me angry, it got better as I learned to breath.

It's been three years since we sold our first ice bath to functional bodybuilder Jerame Mudick. Now, when I'm walking around at Dave Asprey's Biohacking Conference in my bathing suit and bare feet, people like Jim Kwik will pull me aside and say "Hey, aren't you the ice bath guy?"

I am now... but I wasn't always.

Back in 2013, I was just a fat, bespectacled, broke, and depressed University Professor. Back then my business partner, Morozko Forge co-founder Jason Stauffer, was still an undergraduate teaching assistant in my Engineering Business Practices class at Arizona State University.

If you're curious, you can see us both in this 2013 series of videos in which Kathy Kolbe teaches us her method of discovering our instinctive problem-solving strengths. That was about ten years ago, when I weighed almost 250lbs.

It was about that time when my wife said she was unhappy, and she wanted to pack up and move back to New York with our kids. Our daughter was 15 years old, scheduled to graduate from High School in just 3 years, and our marriage had reached the inflection point at which we had to decide what we wanted out lives to be like when the job of raising children was complete.

I didn't like what I saw in the mirror then.

I decided my wife was right. The man she married in 1995 was handsome, fit, and had bright career prospects. The man she was stuck with was ugly, fat, and on his way to a second bankruptcy.

Why would she want to stick around for that?

I sat her down to explain that she was going to see some changes in me, because I'd figured out that to change my marriage, I first had to change myself.

I asked my daughter to teach me some of the exercises she learned from Keith Wilson at Pro Advantage training, so I could start working out at the gym like her.

She was giddy with enthusiasm for my new self-improvement project!

She got out a new sheet of paper and she wrote along the top of it in big, capital letters...


... and the last vestiges of my self esteem shrunk into a ball and died.

I went to the gym and I did the workouts she diagrammed for me. At first my only reward was my daughter's admiration, and that was a good start.

But it wasn't enough.

Text excerpt from Gorilla Minset book recommends cold showers.
Mike Cernovich described the lessons from his ambitious self-improvement project in his 2015 book Gorilla Mindset, in which he recommends starting each day with a cold or contrast shower.

I began to read everything I could about relationships, love, sex, marriage, and self-improvement.

I read No More Mr. Nice Guy (Glover 2003), Antifragile (Taleb 2012), and Married Man Sex Life (Kay 2011).

I lost 30 pounds, switched back to contact lens, upgraded my wardrobe... and separated from my wife.

Although she saw the improvements in me, and she was making her own, we had different visions of what we wanted our lives to be like now that the kids were grown, and we weren't right for one another any longer.

It was soon after our separation that Mike Cernovich's book Gorilla Mindset: How to Control Your Thoughts & Emotions to Live Life on Your Terms (2015) convinced me to start taking cold showers.

For most people, the shower is the most accessible source of cold water for practicing deliberate cold exposure, so it's a natural place to start. At first, I thought maybe it was the resentment I still felt about my marriage, or maybe it was something wrong with me, but the fact is that

I hated ever second of every cold shower I ever took.

It didn't take long before cold showers weren't an option, anyway. The tap water in Phoenix AZ is about 90F in the summertime, and as the shower water warmed up, my discomfort melted away.

I switched from tepid showers to practicing whole-body cold water immersion with bags of ice in a stock tank in Jason's backyard, and a funny thing happened.

Compared to the cold showers, the ice bath put me in a great mood.

I discovered more energy than I'd felt in years. When I was in the ice water, I felt calm.

And when I emerged, the feeling of euphoria I felt was amazing.

I was hooked.

Thomas P Seager smiles while submerged to his neck in ice water.
Whole body cold water immersion changes brain chemistry in a way that often stimulates an involuntary smile. This is my "ice face."

Only now, after years of practicing deliberate cold exposure, have I found the scientific source that may explain the difference I experienced between the cold showers and the ice baths.

An obscure scientific paper, in an unusual peer-reviewed journal called the International Journal of Circumpolar Health, by an unknown Finnish scientist from a University I can't even pronounce, published a cold pressor study comparing partial immersion in cold water to to total body immersion in cold air.

Ilkka Korhonen (2006), from the University of Oulu in Oulun yliopisto, Finland discovered that heart rate increased in young men who submerged only a hand or foot in cold water. But heart rate decreased when the same men were subjected to mild cryotherapy (+10C) for two hours. Korhonen concluded "a sudden local exposure to severe cold would be more stressful than a long lasting, milder exposure to cold, even when the latter is applied to the whole body."

The young Finnish college-age men in the study were presumably acclimated to season cold exposure, given the fact that Oulu is not far from the Arctic circle. And the cold temperatures they experienced are nowhere near as challenging as two minutes in a Forge at a water temperature of +2C... but could it be that partial immersion creates a different biochemical response than whole body?

That's my experience.

Fu et al. (2020) and others from McGill University in Montreal Canada recently published a study of what is called "forest bathing." They brought college students into the woods to explore the effects of immersion in the natural environment on physiological markers of sympathetic and parasympathetic activation.

They discovered that the immersive, natural experience had a calming effect, and that barefoot walking and laying on the ground were most effective for improving mood.

Given the outstanding electrical grounding (earthing) properties of the Forge, and the fact that our initial ice bath practice was outside in the Phoenix sunshine, there could be more than just partial vs whole-body cold immersion that results in a better experience. After all, the shower is an experience that is secluded from nature, solitary, and disconnected from the earth. My introduction to ice baths was immersed in nature, social, and grounded.

The differences in my mood are likely to be the direct result of differences in my physiological response to the cold.

I still take cold showers when I'm travelling and I don't have access to my Forge. The coldest I've ever experienced was probably in London in February, although the summertime glacier melt in Banff, Alberta gave me an unprecedented brain freeze.

I'm a lot better at cold showers than I used to be. Now I remember to breathe, whereas when I first started I did little more than yell obscenities in Cernovich's name.

And I'm more intentional and observant about my experience than I used to be, which is something else that the McGill researchers said supportive a positive mood improvement.

Nonetheless, if you're struggling with cold showers like I did, you might also discover that a whole-body experience isn't worse, as you might expect. Korhonen's science and my personal experience both suggest that the effect of the ice bath on your mood might be just the opposite of the shower!


About the Author

Thomas P Seager, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University. Seager co-founded the Morozko Forge ice bath company and is an expert in the use of ice baths for building metabolic and psychological resilience.

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Gil Rutter
Gil Rutter
Feb 06, 2022

I'd suggest another factor: the shower water is flowing while the bath water is relatively still. In the bath water case, I suspect a microclimate of warmer water would quickly develop around you which would feel more comfortable. The shower is always hitting you with fresh cold water.

Replying to

The microclimate is true! Scott Carney writes about it in 'What Doesn't Kill Us' when he describes how much more difficult it is to be in Laird Hamilton's ice bath when a water circulation pump is constantly moving fresh cold water over your skin, rather than allowing your skin to warm a thin layer of adjacent water. However, I still prefer a whole body ice bath with the circulation pump on, compared to the shower.

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