Investigative journalist Scott Carney traveled to Poland expecting to expose a fraud. The man in Carney’s crosshairs—Dutch fitness guru Wim Hof—was selling a 7-day, $2,000 training course that he claimed could help people take control of their bodies’ autonomic processes (such as their immune system and metabolism) and to access super-human powers of endurance and fortitude.
Please give me the elevator pitch for What Doesn’t Kill Us. What’s it about?
We used to think there were just two pillars to human health. Diet and exercise. It was the energy you put in and how you used it through movement. But there is a third pillar, which is the environment you inhabit. By experiencing variations in temperature, altitude and other environmental factors—this has a huge impact in how you process energy and how your immune system functions. I looked mostly at cold exposure through this guy Wim Hof, a Dutch fitness daredevil who uses what looks like extreme cold to sort of hack his body and take control of its unconscious processes to work better. At first I thought he was a charlatan. A liar. But I flew to Poland and tried his methods in 2012, and duplicated his results. I went from a guy living in Los Angeles in a perpetual summer environment to a guy in a bathing suit in 2-degree weather in snow, and being warm and fine. It was eye-opening for me.
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What’s Wim Hof’s background? Is he a scientist, or a doctor?
No. He’s a madman. He’s a prophet, but he’s a madman. He grew up near Amsterdam during the 1960s, and had always been outside the box. He started jumping into ice water since his late teens and early 20s to see how his body responded. Doing that, he learned this trick that he could consciously control these processes we used to think were unconscious, by mimicking his body’s innate reactions to cold water while he was on dry land—that’s where his breathing method emerged. He was thought of as a freak-show for a long time. Slowly, the scientific and journalistic communities found out he had discovered something special. What seemed impossible was something he could teach, and could teach extremely quickly.
What did he teach you, and how did he teach it to you?
There are two aspects of his method; breathing protocol, and cold exposure. The breathing protocol consists of controlled, deep hyperventilation—basically, blowing all the air out of your lungs—and then holding your breath for as long as you can. Do repetitions of this, and you can learn to hold your breath for incredibly long periods of time. It’s common after a week of this to be able to hold your breath for three minutes. The second protocol is going into cold environments, like an icy mountain stream or an ice bath, and controlling your shiver response. You redirect and suppress that response, and tell your body to use metabolic activity to heat yourself instead of muscle movement. These two practices combined—not at the same time—really help you break into bodily processes we used to think were unconscious.
What are the real-life benefits of this? I mean, why do this?
You can become comfortable in uncomfortable environments. Feats of endurance are doable. I walked up Kilimanjaro in a bathing suit and shoes. Another benefit, from the breathing protocol, is that it gives you a short term anaerobic physical boost. Hyperventilate and get all the air out of your lungs and then do pushups, you can do twice as many as you could before. Before breathing program, I could do 20. After one session of the breathing pattern, I could do 40 while holding my breath. So I doubled muscular output. Other people have been using this hack and mixing it with high intensity interval training and other exercise protocols to improve their results.
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Any other benefits?
There’s a huge autoimmune benefit to this. By learning to control yourself in stressful environments—that has all these ancillary benefits for anxiety, possibly for PTSD, for lupus and Crohn’s and arthritis. There’s also a weight-loss component. Learn to control yourself in cold environment, and your metabolism ramps up and sucks white fat from your system and burns it for energy. So in Poland, after seven days I lost seven pounds.
How do you put Wim’s protocols to use in your own life now?
I wake up and do breathing program every morning for 15 minutes. Then I do pushups, then I take cold showers. This is the entry level of his method that everyone can do and get pretty immediate health benefits. You start to sort of gain control of internal bodily processes that we don’t generally try to access. Look at it this way: Our whole civilization, because of climate control, lives in a perpetual state of homeostasis—72 degrees, and almost no stress from our environment. But we evolved in environments with constant variations in temperature, and our para-sympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems are designed to manage these fluctuations. So these biological systems we used to employ to run from bears or deal with environment, now we’re using them to manage anxiety. We’re worrying about our 401ks or health-care setup. It’s made us dysfunctional because we’re not in tune with these processes any more. So I try to be aware of how I’m interacting with my environment. It’s a whole mindset change.
How can people reading this, or reading your book, tap into all this themselves?
You need to get in touch with your environment. Right now, we’re getting into winter. Our natural inclination is to retreat toward comfort. We want to feel warm. Before we even go outside, we put on extra layers of clothing to keep ourselves at indoor temp. So I have this social media campaign called “wear one less layer.”(#onelesslayer) The idea is to feel a little chilly. You want to look at cold as exercise. I’m not talking about bringing yourself to the point of frostbite. But if you can feel those sensations of cold—let yourself experience that—you can adapt and feel less cold throughout the winter as a result. You want to depend on the natural adaptations of your body, not technology. One less layer is a very simple way to try it.
This article originally appeared on Men's Health