Was it all worth it?
I've always had this little voice in my head.
It's not an evil voice. It's not convincing me to commit murder or rob banks. No, this voice is mostly about making me do stupid stuff. When I was a kid it might say something like "bet you can't run to that point in the horizon without stopping." Or "bet you can't backflip off that precarious ledge."
We all have inner voices, but my "bet you can't" voice has been part of my makeup for as long as I can remember. And, on balance, it's a net positive. Usually it's forcing me to eat well and exercise. Today, at age 41, I'm mostly fit and healthy.
And that's partly thanks to the voice which, to this day, pipes up often. Always the same...
"Bet you can't run a marathon" or "bet you can't learn a second language" or "bet you can't quit drinking soft drinks." Most of the time the voice is my friend, but sometimes it leads me astray. Once it had me doing a sleep experiment that sent my mind into meltdown. That's probably the worst thing the little voice told me to do.
The second worst? Cold showers. Please allow me to tell you why I took nothing but cold showers for the entirety of 2022.
It was the tail end of 2021. My wife and I had family staying over for Christmas. Twenty people all up. We had fun, we made merry, but there were issues. Mainly logistics. My house has two showers. One inside shower -- a very normal shower with hot water -- and a less normal outdoor shower that only has access to cold water.
To make things easier for guests, I started taking showers outside. Cold showers.
Christmastime is bang in the middle of summer in Sydney, Australia, where I live, so that was mostly fine. It was hot, often over 110 Fahrenheit hot. Sometimes I'd go for a run, get all sweaty and annoyed and just dive into the cold shower. A salve, pure relief.
That's when the little voice popped into my head…
"Hey you little bitch, bet you can't do cold showers for the entire year…"
You've probably heard about the "health benefits" of cold showers. According to the research, there are more than a few good reasons to take them.
One study reports that by increasing the availability of endorphins and another hormone, norepinephrine, cold showers can ease symptoms of depression. (Obvious caveat here: I absolutely do not believe depression can be cured with cold water.)
Other studies reported immune system boosts, improved physical recovery post exercise and reduced inflammation. Giovanna Mallucci, a neuroscience professor formerly with the UK Dementia Research Institute, claims to have found a "cold shock" protein, present in the blood of regular winter swimmers, that could potentially slow the onset of dementia.
But to be perfectly honest, none of these reported benefits were in my conscious thoughts when I committed to cold showers for a full calendar year. I was merely listening to the voice.
As a middle-aged man, burdened with decades of ingrained toxic masculinity equating overcoming physical and mental struggle with inner strength, I enjoy putting myself through ridiculous "challenges" for the sake of it. This is my personality. I'm too old to change now. When the voice speaks, I listen and, almost always, I obey.
A part of me hoped cold showers might help me increase my metabolism or recover faster from training (I'm a keen rock climber), but mostly I wanted to try something different. To have something new to talk about when conversation dried up at school pickups. I'm a shallow man with shallow needs.
Mostly I reckon it's useful to do something difficult each day for the pure satisfaction of having completed that task. It's an ego boost, it sets the tone and has an energizing effect that has the potential to reverberate for the remainder of that day.
So I began.
It was relatively easy at first. In my experience, most challenges like this are. Possessed with the psyche of trying something new, I stood in cold showers for five minutes at a time and emerged shivering and proud. I marched into the shower like a madman, frantically rubbing my belly like a hysterical hiker searching for ticks. I just gutted it out.
What became more challenging later was the grind -- committing to the bit after my initial enthusiasm waned. Picture yourself stinky, exhausted after a long difficult day of work, suddenly remembering you need a shower before going to bed. This is when temptation kicks in, when it feels more than justified to run a warm bath or stand for 15 minutes in a scalding hot shower.
But I persisted, often on the verge of angry tears, into the breach of Baltic water and shriveled genitals.
Yeah, take that. I sure showed you, you stupid little moron brain voice.
I have a rigid cold shower routine I follow every single time without fail. It wasn't a process I developed consciously. It emerged naturally in the petri dish of cold shower survival mode.
It goes like this: I turn on the shower. I get naked. I stand in front of the cold, spraying water for a few seconds reflecting on my life choices. In some ways, this is the worst part: before the shower. That's when you have to make the "choice."
I take two steps forward. There's no face- or hair-wetting at this juncture, just pain and unintelligible grunts for about 20 seconds. Then I turn around. That's always the most difficult part. The large, flat surface of my back exposes the highest percentage of nerve endings to the cold water. But once that's done? I'm mostly good. I get the soap, start washing. I turn around to wash the soap off, dip my head and hair in. I'm cooking. All is good.
Unfortunately, I soon discovered that Australian cold showers are "easy mode."
It was during a work trip to New York in March that I discovered not all cold water is created equal. My soft summer body was crucified at the hands of New York's freezing-ass winter ice water. I was shocked to my core. I couldn't believe how cold it was. But I persisted, clumsily squeezing out single-serve hotel shower gel as I jogged on the spot like a confused caveman, somehow trying to shift my internal temperature into something bearable.
Later in the year things got worse.
In October, I went on a family trip to the southern part of Chile, where, I assume, the water in my brother-in-law's shower was piped directly from the icy, snow-capped mountains that surrounded us. The water in Chile was Baltic, to the point where I would get literal brain freeze if I stayed in for too long. Complete agony.
The closest I've come to bailing on the cold water challenge was during that trip.
We'd just gotten back from a once-in-a-lifetime experience: scaling the summit of Villarica, one of Chile's most active volcanoes. It was brutal. It took us eight hours to get to the summit and roughly four hours to get back down, navigating snow and icy conditions the entire time. We were geared up to the max, crampons and ice axes, and it was a genuine struggle to get to the top. On the way down everyone eagerly discussed getting home and jumping into a nice warm shower. My heart sank. I knew I would be starved of this well-earned thermal feast.
My family was shocked when I said I still planned to have a cold shower that night. "You can have hot water this one time, surely," they said.
But they didn't know the limits of my stubborn stupidity. I'd spent almost a year doing this dumb shit, I wasn't going to break my streak because I felt a bit frosty. But I can't lie -- I doubt my cold shower that night lasted more than a minute. Enough to get clean and scramble out, into the false solace of a dry towel and steaming hot mug of tea.
The question I always get is "why?" Outside of "the voices told me," I still don't have a good answer for that.
Did I feel any long-term benefits? I'm unsure. This is an experiment with a sample size of one. I didn't take many sick days in 2022, but outside of that, I'm not convinced cold showers changed anything. I'm not convinced they aid recovery, or cure dementia, or whatever it says on the tin.
Was it worth it? Hell no. Would I recommend going all in on cold showers? Nah. Probs not.
Am I going to stop doing cold showers anytime soon? I'm still not sure. Bizarrely, I think I'm going to keep going.
Am I contradicting myself here? Absolutely. But my feelings about this cold shower experiment are complex, rooted in weird ideas about trying difficult things and not giving up, even if there's no good reason to forge ahead. Basically I've watched way too much anime.
The simple fact is this: I never regretted a single cold shower. I've always felt better immediately afterward. Alert, happier. Some people suggested it would help with my skin, and make my hair… better? Thicker? Silkier? I dunno. Maybe it's my imagination, but my skin did seem clearer, better, softer. I think.
More importantly, after cold showers, I always felt like I had achieved something. I never had that groggy feeling you get when you spend too long in a piping hot shower. It was good to have done something difficult. That was nice.
In some ways cold showers make me happy. I think.
But I also believe willpower is finite. Could the mental energy required to endure cold showers for a year have made it more difficult to achieve the other, less stupid goals I set for myself in 2022? Is it a coincidence that I [checks notes] put on 10 to 12 pounds, felt more anxious and exercised markedly less during the same period? It's impossible to say.
A part of me believes the resolve I poured into having daily cold showers left my willpower reserves wanting, making it tougher to continue eating healthy, or head to the gym regardless of my motivation levels. Normally, those were habits I followed through on without question. This year? Not so much.
Regardless, I know I will find it difficult to stop. At this point, taking cold showers is a habit so ingrained I know my inner voice will fight back against going back to "normal." As stupid as it sounds, warm showers will feel like cheating to the little voice in my head. I suspect one year might not be enough for that little bastard.
Because ultimately these things become normalized. Like quitting sugar or caffeine, taking cold showers is difficult, especially at first, and the effort required to maintain the habit never truly goes away, but it does fade. It's much easier now. Cold showers aren't necessarily challenging anymore; what was once an active struggle is just noise. A low-frequency hum you'd barely notice until someone shuts it off.
That's where I'm at. For the foreseeable future I'm a cold shower guy. Thanks, stupid little voice in my head. Thanks for nothing. And possibly everything.