0:01:17 – From Australia, to London, to Finland: Leigh shares his background
0:05:58 – The environment, culture and weather in Finland
0:15:36 – What inspired Leigh’s interest in cold exposure therapy?
0:20:34 – His inaugural plunge in the Baltic Sea
0:23:00 – Mental benefits of taking a cold shower
0:27:15 – It’s not always recommended after a workout
0:35:42 – Why you should tackle breathwork separately from cold exposure therapy
0:44:55 – You can manage stress with breathwork… and involve the kids
0:49:41 – Five key actions to implement cold exposure therapy and breathwork techniques
1:00:11 – Community and the benefits of social support
Welcome to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast where you can learn how to improve your diet, lose fat and get fitter in a sustainable and fun way, without spending hours in the gym. Here is your host Darren Kirby.
Darren: This is Episode 27 of the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast. In today’s show, we’re going to be talking about the art of cold exposure training. Joining me on the show is Leigh Ewin.
Leigh is a cold exposure evangelist and has been trained by The Iceman himself, Wim Hof. Leigh has spent years exploring cold adaptation to aid anxiety, pain and stress relief, as well as sports and athletic performance enhancement. He used to compete in basketball at a high level but nowadays you can find him guiding cold exposure in many different settings, from sports halls to a small tipi in the middle of the forest. Hey, Leigh.
Leigh: Good day, mate. How are you?
Darren: Yeah, very well, thank you. Thanks very much for joining me on the show today.
Leigh: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.
Darren: Cool. Before we get into the whole topic and the subject of cold exposure, can we get a little bit of information and background on yourself, Leigh?
Leigh: Yeah, of course. You can probably tell right off the bat that, I mean, I live in Finland. I live up north in Finland, but I’m an Aussie. I’ve been living up here in Finland for about 12 years and as you probably well know, you can’t come from that kind of climate down in the southern hemisphere and make your way up to Finland and not form some relationship with the cold, you know? There’s more than just the weather to come to terms with up here. It’s all the cultural things and language and all those sorts of things. But yeah, honestly, I’ve never felt more happier or healthier since moving up here and a lot of it has to do with the climate and the way of life here as well.
Darren: Right, okay. So what caused the move, Leigh? if you don’t mind me asking. Like you say, you’re going from the Southern Hemisphere where the majority of us would ideally love to migrate to because the perception is it’s quite warm, it’s always sunny, everyone’s always happy. And then you got up to Finland which is, like you say, polar opposite, really?
Leigh: Yeah. Well, we have this little thing in Australia. We’ve got this working holiday visa that we’re able to come over there to the UK. Many Aussies jump across at the opportunity to sort of take a year or two off and kind of explore. I think the goal or the dream is to explore Europe but I think many of us sort of get stuck in London or in some of those larger cities there, maybe up north: Manchester in some cases, Cardiff in Wales and stuff.
I was no I was no different. My mom’s actually born in Leicester in the Midlands over there, so I was under no time pressure I suppose. I was just out there exploring and I felt like I was… Like many do, you know. You’re in your mid to late 30s and you’re sort of wondering what you’re doing. I was working in the public service, basically for the government there in Australia and that didn’t speak to me. I was just doing work for the pay check so I took the chance to come across and of course met a Finnish girl, you know? Surprise, surprise.
We got along great and ended up just basically… London is its own animal in a way. It’s a lovely city but there’s also a certain situation or circumstance you need to be in to go and explore and enjoy all of those lovely things over there and we weren’t in that situation. And so it kind of felt like a bit of a “hamster in the wheel” kind of situation or a bit of a grind over there. We then made the decision that we would come to Finland, but first we’d stop off in Australia for seven/ eight months. Meet the folks and stuff and then come back over.
For me, one of the biggest things that I did just before I got across was I applied for university because the education system is a little bit different here. Even foreigners can enrol in university level degree programmes at no cost, no charge. I was like, I might as well educate myself a little bit over here as well. So it kind of worked out okay but then of course, early on even within about eight to nine months, the whole relationship fell to bits and I ended up staying anyway because I wanted to complete the studies and I didn’t want to give up on Finland at the first sign of trouble.
Darren: Okay, cool. On the environment of Finland, I’ve only ever been to Finland once when I was in the corporate world. It was cold, very icy, and the perception is that in the winter you don’t get much light, it’s very cold. I’m not too certain about the summer but the only thing that I do know is it can get very warm there. But like I said in the beginning, it’s kind of polar opposite to Australia. And when we think about the realms of health and stuff, there’s this whole big thing around getting vitamin D in and everything else. So, what is the environment like there and why are you so attracted to it?
Leigh: You nailed it. That’s exactly how it is. I mean, I wouldn’t say the temperature was the biggest thing to come to grips with. It was definitely the light, as you mentioned. Like this time of the year and for the next week or two, it’s literally going into the darkest time of the year where we don’t get the sunlight quite as much. You’ll get a few hours of sort of–I’m using parenthesis here–daylight or sunlight, where it’s… The sun’s not out today as I look out the window. It’s just a bit kind of gloomy-grey but it’s light; you can see everything out there. But it has its effects. It has its effects on everybody here. Even Finnish people that have been born and bred here and it’s in the DNA, it affects everybody. It’s a biological effect. People do get a little bit sort of internal in a way. They’re just trying to get through the day and get their things sorted out. It comes probably as no surprise that Finns actually drink the most coffee per person per capita in the world.
Actually, all the Nordic countries are kind of featured in the top, maybe 10 or eight in the world, but Finland is number one, and it’s about four cups per day per person. You’d be struggling to go to a business meeting up here and not find coffee offered there. They usually serve coffee with every single meeting. There’s a few things that they’ve figured out up here in order to come to terms with it all. Another one is the sauna. We would say sauna but it’s a Finnish word. That’s another big thing that people utilise up here that’s really, really good for you. The health benefits are pretty well documented. I’m lucky enough or fortunate enough to have a sauna in my apartment. Yeah, yeah, it’s perfect.
Darren: We talk about it here in the UK, particularly in the winter when the clocks change. People will start to talk about the kind of SAD scenario and particularly if you work in corporate, in the mornings you’re commuting in the dark; you go into an office, you don’t really see daylight; you come out, it’s dark. What are the coping mechanisms or the things that you’ve seen in the Finnish society–how people can deal with that? Or is it a case of they just get on with it, deal with it and have coffee?
Leigh: Probably, to be really honest, I think it’s a bit of a combination. It’s quite fitting that we have this today as well, like we’re talking about all this stuff today. Because today is the 102nd year of the Finnish independence. If you think about the history of the place, the conditions, the different groups of people that have been living here over the course of time, there’s a certain embedded resiliency, I suppose. But then also, they’ve had these other kinds of challenges: different countries like Russia and Sweden in the olden days that were trying to occupy the place or had occupied the place; it was under their rule.
And 102 years ago, the Finns with this tiny little army fended off the Russian army that was about 20 times their size or something like this. They did it with their smarts, their knowledge, and actually. This might come as a bit of a surprise because the stereotypical Finn is known as a kind of introvert, a stoic-introvert combination. These guys, the Finns, they worked together in little groups; they communicated really well with each other and that’s how they were able to organise themselves and fight off the threat.
I think it’s a bit the same today as well. We’ve got a really, really good fitness culture here. People are really adventurous with what they’re doing here, people are more than willing to try out… You’ve got a lot of men that enjoy yoga and not like these kind of yogi men or fit men. It’s just dads, people of all kinds of backgrounds, people from the corporate world as well.
For example, I think it was last week, we had a sending off for a couple of guys from the university and we were doing–I don’t even remember what it was called. I think it was Zumba or something like this. It was a very, very urban dancing, street dancing kind of thing. Not honestly my cup of tea, but we had a whole bunch of guys doing that in there, having a barrel of laughs. So there is that group exercise kind of culture where you rely on the support and a little bit of group collective learning as well.
Darren: Yeah, I think that’s quite important, actually, and I think it’s one which, particularly in the UK and the Western world, I think the tide is changing around that community side of things. I don’t want to go too much on a tangent here, but we are increasingly living insular lives in terms of everything is on our mobile phones now. Our shopping, our interaction with people, and a lot of fitness… not even just gyms, but fitness movements are popping up now where if you take a higher look at it, it’s not necessarily about the fitness; it’s about community. People engaging and interacting. I think we kind of have lost that over many, many years. So that’s quite interesting that the Finns are doing that already.
Leigh: I think there is that kind of paradox, isn’t there? That we feel like we’re quite connected with all of these mobile phones and the technology and all that sort of stuff. I mean, obviously, that’s how we’re even talking right now. But then there’s still this kind of proximity and there’s still this kind of, you know, when you look at someone in the eyes, when you get the pat on the back from someone in your team sport environment. It can even be a beer or a coffee or a tea after the football game or whatever it is. Those kinds of interactions, like you’re suggesting, seem like they’re just kind of fallen on the wayside or, I don’t know. We just feel like we’re connected via the technology and there’s still a lot of that physical stuff and the proximity stuff that I think is really, really valuable to us. That’s almost like taking one of the legs away from the chair when you don’t have that in your life anymore as well.
Darren: Yeah, definitely. I completely agree. It’s a topic which I could have a whole podcast on because it’s social interaction, it’s social skills, particularly with children as well now because they are all brought up in this world of connected technology. And it’s amazing how kids–it builds anxiety in some kids when they’re not connected. But like I said, that’s a whole other conversation.
Leigh: Have you seen the really scary video where there was a child with a newspaper on the ground and the child was, I don’t know how old, maybe two years old or something, was trying to swipe the newspaper?
Darren: No! That’s crazy. You’ll have to send a link to the video and I’ll post it in the show notes.
Leigh: Yeah, yeah. It kind of shows that even though we’re experiencing this now, there’s a group of youngsters growing up in these times where we don’t know what it’s like growing up with all this technology. We were lucky to have a TV in the house or whatever it was and now these kids have got all iPhones and they’ve got a mobile phone by the age of seven or eight going to school, and all these kinds of things. These kinds of things and these conversations are really, really important to have now so that we can help guide the kids and the future generations a little bit, too.
Darren: Yeah, definitely. Awareness is key. Coming back to your studies, and obviously, you went to or are still going to university in Finland. You then trained in cold therapy and you’ve trained with The Iceman himself. What led you to becoming interested in that area? Was it the fact that you were in Finland or you just had a general interest in it already?
Leigh: It was for sure that I was in Finland. I used to think that the “chilly mornings of Canberra,” a frosty morning in Canberra, the capital of Australia, that was cold. But that pales in comparison to what we experience up here, you know? Even if I think back, in those days, I was still wearing the shorts to school most of the time. I was still wearing shorts to school most of the year, I would say, back in Australia, so it’s just really different. And honestly, I’ve not noticed the cold so much when I was in Australia, but when I came to Finland, I was like, okay. The darkness and the fact that there’s just this ice. Like you said, the snow comes and goes and they do a really good job of taking the snow away so that it’s not piling up all over the place like you might see in some other places. I was about to just jump in and say the US!
But then it’s actually the ice and things like that. If you weren’t to go outside when it’s just cold and icy, then you’d probably be staying indoors for like seven, eight, nine months of the year. I actually tried to do that the first year because also, as I mentioned, the relationship was… It was pretty obvious that that was the wrong relationship and that we were both experiencing a bit of difficulties. Me adjusting and then also my girlfriend at the time, she was living in London for about six years, so there was probably a little bit of a reverse culture shock thing happening there as well. But, yeah, I didn’t want to go outside. I didn’t want to go out there. I wasn’t even prepared, I didn’t have the right clothes or anything like that, and I just kind of found myself indoors all the time and I’ve never been that kind of person. I’ve always had this urge to go outside and be in nature or go to the beach or at least go for a hike in the bush in Australia.
Eventually I just said, you know what? I’ve got to get out there somehow. I can’t let eight or nine months of my life pass by waiting for something else to happen. And then, as you touched on the Finnish summers as well, you might get a summer here once every four or five years where it’s only about 20 degrees for four or five days and the rest is sort of hovering around 16 to 18 degrees. Gloomy, a bit rainy and so on. It’s a dangerous game to even rely on the fact that okay, I’ve just got to get through to the next summer.
I basically went out. I had some friends and mates that were inviting me out to do cross country skiing. There’s no big downhill slopes here but there is a lot of good forest cross country skiing tracks. I started to do that a little bit and I liked that because you can get in and amongst nature, but what I really enjoyed about that the most was that when you finished–you do some kilometres through the forest and all that kind of stuff–you’re sweating. It’s a real workout.
But then I liked this sauna thing that we have. Sauna. They say that the population of Finland’s about 5.5 million and we’ve got, I think it’s about 3.5 million saunas here. So almost one for everybody. And this was just back at this lodge thing where you can get all the skis and that; they always have the sauna and you can go down there and it’s just a perfect way to sort of relax. You feel calm and it’s really an enjoyable experience. By the way, you’re butt naked with a whole bunch of random strangers that you don’t know, of course.
And then the other interesting thing is that in Finland, there’s always a body of water close by because we have 180,000 lakes here. 180,000 lakes. Yeah, that’s why the Finnish flag is blue and white because it’s basically representative of the white, so it’s snow, but then also very much the blue water that we have here. 180,000 lakes–just about all of them have probably frozen up by about now, I would say, at this time of the year. What I’m saying here is the two things kind of go hand in hand. There’s usually always a sauna next to a body of water and that’s just how it began.
They were like, okay, we’re going to go for a quick dip. And I was like, you’ve got to be joking, right? And they’re like, no. And in they go, one after the other. Boom, boom, boom. I was the butt of all jokes. The Aussie’s going in, they wanted to film me, they wanted to record me and I couldn’t handle it. Eventually, I decided myself that you know what? I want to be able to do this. I want to actually be able to do it. It wasn’t for the right reasons, I suppose. It was more about, I want to prove everybody wrong and all that kind of thing.
But I went to the Baltic Sea, which also freezes even though it’s still quite salty–the water content. It’s a bit less salt water than the other larger oceans so that means that the actual ice can form there. You get 30, 40 centimetres of ice on there in the wintertime. And, of course, at the start of the winter–October or so on–it only just starts getting that thin layer of ice on it. And that’s when I started getting in there and getting amongst it. I had no idea what I was doing but I just wanted to experience that. Like I said, for all the wrong reasons. It was just more about proving everybody else wrong. Like I could do it; the Aussie guy is not a wimp or anything like this.
Darren: Yeah, okay. Obviously, they do it for a reason; obviously there’s a benefit for it, but what kind of physical or mental benefits of this cold water therapy are there? Because initially, for us general Westerners… And I’ve tried these cold showers and I’ve not yet mastered it to be honest. But the times that I have done it cognitively, and what I mean by that is your awareness, your mental capacity is like it’s switched on. So there are clearly benefits around it. It’s just getting over that hump, if you like, of being in the cold. Because naturally, we just gravitate to nice hot warm climates and showers and all the rest of it. What physical and mental benefits have you found?
Leigh: That’s the thing. A lot of people have been talking about the physical benefits but you’re right. The mental aspect is something. If you think about the situation when you wake up in the morning, most of us are kind of like you know, you crawl out of a really, really cosy warm bed, the apartment or the house, you’ve got a radiator on. Over here in Finland, we have triple glazed windows because they have to have these buildings ready to survive all kinds of extreme temperatures. So you get out of the bed and it’s like kind of cosy. Maybe you don’t want to get out of bed, you’ve got to go to work and all that kind of thing. And then you go to the shower and you have a warm shower, you have a hot shower.
And you kind of dawdle around in there for 10, 15 minutes or however it goes. You come back out and then you’re still not aware of what’s going on or anything like that. And that’s where I’m asking people or a little bit challenging people. Saying, hey, listen. When you wake up in the morning, it’s go time. A lot of your listeners, they’re dads; they don’t have the opportunity or the luxury to sort of say okay, let’s hang around or whatever. It’s like you’ve got to go. The kids have probably woken you up in the first place and then it’s all go, go, go, go from there on.
I think the cold shower is like the ultimate sort of test or the challenge for you to be who you want to be, attack the day and own the day. Everyone knows that if you splash a bit of water on the face, you kind of feel fresher, or if you go to the swimming pool and it’s a little bit cooler than you might have thought, you kind of have that invigoration or this invigorating feeling. Everyone knows that and you’ve experienced it on some level but you can kind of micro dose that on a daily basis by just going to the shower.
The mental aspect of that, I always say it’s a bit like the matrix, you know. You’re literally confronted with the red or the blue pill in the shower. It’s like, which way are we going to go today? There’s just so much more benefits mentally to be kind of like–from the start of the day–choosing a slightly more challenging way. If you make your bed in the morning, then go to the shower, have a cold shower, subconsciously it’s a little bit like the military army kind of regime thing, where you would give yourself this progression and ticking the boxes as you go. So the mental aspect is something that kind of compounds and gives you this momentum starting the day. Then you go and make the kids’ breakfast or this or that.
Darren: Yeah. I think there’s a couple of things. The fact that it’s just changing and challenging yourself first thing in the morning, particularly if you’ve got kids and they’re young kids and they’ve had you up in the night. People listening to this might be thinking a cold shower, when I’ve been up for three hours a night? What are you guys talking about? But I think that it’s not necessarily a case of… Leigh, you can correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s not necessarily a case of just switching on the cold shower and getting in. You can switch between the two so you can do like 20 seconds of warm, 10 seconds of cold. I definitely have felt the benefits of it.
Around the techniques that you would recommend, Leigh, how could they incorporate that, from a breathing aspect as well? Because obviously it takes your breath away. But then equally to that, would you or do you incorporate that after you’ve worked out as well?
Leigh: The basic way that I would suggest doing it is there’s a couple of ways you can try it. I always say it’s like there’s always two different types of people. There’s those of us who go into a cold pool up to our knees, up to our waists, up to our chests, and then kind of dive in. And then there’s the other half of us or whatever the numbers are, that just dive on in. In the same way, I’ve been telling people, hey, you can do the shower exactly the same way. You can turn the hot down in three stages. You can have down and experience that and then down again and then all the way, so you are gradually getting to the cold.
Or then for some people, they just like to have the cold straightaway and they like to get in. They like to put their chest under, they rotate, they put the back and then eventually they’ll just put their face and their head in as well. And as you mentioned correctly, that’s exactly what happens, right? The reason why we wake up and there is that kind of invigoration or this kind of awake feeling or a bit of clarity too, you could say, is because you’re tapping in or awakening that sort of sympathetic branch of the nervous system, which is basically the fight or flight. Your body’s kind of saying, okay, hang on. What kind of threat have we got here? Cold is a threat to your homeostasis and if you think about homeostasis as a concept, it’s basically this little tiny part of your brain which is commonly referred to as the reptilian part of the brain, which is basically guarding your body to just survive. It’s literally trying to have you to… we call it the three F’s, right? The fight or flight response, the feeding response, or then the procreation, the other F word there, you could say. Those three F’s.
And it’s just trying to keep you in that safe spot, that safe zone. If we find ourselves in these controlled environments, if we’re choosing warm, we’re choosing comfort all the time, we’re not opening up or awakening those nice little adaptations. After all of these years of evolution, how have we gotten from the caveman to today? We’re kind of like wrapping ourselves in cotton wool.
So it is opening and awakening these pathways in the body on a cellular level and then you’re waking up your body. You do get a little bit of a rise in adrenaline, which is basically glucose that your body gives so you get that awake, “okay, let’s do it” kind of feeling. And, as you mentioned as well, the contrast shower, which is hot and cold, that serves a really nice purpose as well. You correctly suggested 20 seconds or 30 seconds, sort of warm, and then going back to the cold and having this alternating between the two a couple of times. That’s actually really, really good to open up your lymph system or your lymphatic system, which is the drainage system in your body. So all these little toxins and so on, that you can open that up and get rid of some of that stuff. That’s the reason to have the contrast showers but you should always try and finish with the cold because you’ll end up having that “awake” focus clarity at the end of the shower.
The last thing that you mentioned, if I remember correctly, was you were asking about having a cold shower after training. If people are going to the gym in the morning and then trying to get back and help the kids at breakfast or the missus and so on, the cold shower is a good idea in some cases. Basically I would say, if you’re doing cardio, if you’re doing some yoga, if you’re doing a bit of a run in the morning, if you’re doing rowing, anything like that, cycling, whatever your weapon of choice is, those kinds of cardiovascular-related things, a cold shower is actually very good for those exercises afterwards because it kind of decreases the inflammation in the body. A lot of the repetitive sports… running is one of those where your joints and things like that, after time, they get a bit inflamed and the cold shower is a nice way to bring that down a little bit.
So that’s a good idea for those cardiovascular exercises. But if you’re actually going to the gym and you’re doing some resistance training, what you want to do is if you can–it’s not always possible–the number one thing to do after that is go to the sauna. Go in there, heat yourself up and open up the veins, the blood vessels. Obviously, your testosterone spikes up as well and also the human growth hormone factor spikes whilst you’re in the sauna, especially if it’s about 20 minutes about 80 degrees, something like that. That’s like the best thing you can do after your training. The reason for that is because we want the inflammation, right? We know that when we go into the gym and we look in the mirror, we’re doing the bicep curl, we look at that we’re like, Oh, hang on, that looks pretty good. That’s because it’s swelling up, we’re getting a lot of blood flow into the muscle, into the tissue, and we want to keep that going afterwards.
The perfect scenario would be in the morning that you do your weightlifting or your bench press, whatever resistance training you’re into. You can even do a fasted workout as well if that’s convenient, just a bit of water and then do the workout. But what you’d want to do is after the workout, go to the sauna, keep that inflammation going, keep the blood flowing. Just before you would go to the sauna, you would have your protein or your amino acids or whatever nutrients you’d like to fuel the body with. Go to the sauna, then you come back home and no cold shower because we want that inflammation to continue.
There are two sides. Cardiovascular: it’s a good idea to do a cold shower after those kinds of exercises, whereas the resistance training, it’s not so much a great idea because it will sort of stump the reparation of your tissue in your body.
Darren: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I use the cold water immersion, specifically after I’ve done a long run because it’s very harsh on the body, very impactful and creates a lot of swelling. I found that that definitely helps my recovery. It also helps clarity around mindset when you’re feeling a bit fatigued.
So we’ve spoken about the benefits of the cold water therapy but coupled with this is when you can use breathwork. I’ve used breathwork probably for the last six months and I found it’s really helpful for my mindset, for clearing my mindset ahead of the day. Now, I only do this for about 10 minutes a day but again, some of the dads that listen to this might think, “For me to curve out 10 minutes in the morning to do a little bit of breathwork after you’ve asked me to get in a cold shower, that’s just not feasible.” But I really urge people to try it. In your opinion, how would you approach the other side to it? The breathwork for the mindset element after you’ve done the cold shower?
Leigh: We’re going back to actually when we’re in the cold shower, I think. I think it’s good to a little bit separate some of the breathwork stuff because if you’re talking about things like the Wim Hof Method and these different styles of breathing, some of it’s quite heavy breathing. It’s really trying to create a state in the body.
Now, if we’re in the cold shower, what we want to do is calm the breathing. Like we said before, the sympathetic nervous system is sort of active. It’s saying: all right, what’s the threat here? And that’s why the heart starts beating a little bit more and it is sometimes a bit difficult to draw that first breath and even a complete breath, you know. You kind of have that sometimes it’s a bit sort of […] in parts. You can feel your body trying to bring the whole breath in, but there’s that little sort of like stutter in between. So you’re just trying to control your breath.
The really interesting thing about that situation is stress in the body, it kind of manifests in exactly that same way. So whether you’re in a cold shower, whether someone’s yelled at you at work, whether someone’s cut you off in a road rage incident or whatever, you’re about to jump out of a plane or you’re about to go and give a presentation at work, the stress actually manifests in exactly the same way. In a way that your heart will start racing or pounding a little bit more, you get a little bit sweaty and all that kind of stuff and you are more in this kind of active state.
It’s a perfect scenario to learn how to control the breath and therefore control stress or the response to stress. That’s why when you’re in a cold shower, we’re just asking people to gently, gently try and sort of like, I don’t know if you can hear this, but […] Kind of lengthening the exhale. Really lengthen that exhale. Something that we’re not quite used to doing on a day to day basis, but you’re just going to lengthen the exhale and you’re going to stimulate this vagus nerve, which has a direct link to your heart and your heart rate, and then it will be able to lower the rate and calm the whole body and all the systems in your body.
This is why it’s worth mentioning–this style of breathing–because if you’re in the shower for a few minutes, it is almost like a breathwork meditation or exercise. Because if you’ve got the cold shower there, or even warm shower, you could still do some sort of breathwork routine for a few minutes whilst you’re in the shower. Just gathering your thoughts and focusing on what you’ve got up on the agenda for the day. So there’s that part of it.
And then if we’re talking specifically about the Wim Hof Method breathing, that’s something that we should do completely separate from the cold because it’s quite intensive. And we’re always suggesting–not suggesting but enforcing, hopefully–that people don’t combine the two. Because when you’re starting to breathe in like this kind of breathing […] this kind of breathwork, you can feel a little bit lightheaded sometimes. If you are in your ice bar or you’re having a swim or something like this, there is a risk of what they call shallow water blackout, which means that you get a little bit dizzy.
Especially if it’s early in the morning and the blood pressure is rising and all that sort of thing, you can actually… If you have a little faint or something and you wake up face down in the water, the first instinct is for the body to breathe in and of course you’re going to take in the water. That’s why we are really telling people not to combine the two. But the actual breathing in the Wim Hof Method breathing is really, really nice one because those same tingling and all those little sensations and the light-headedness and things like that, a lot of people love that feeling. I love it myself as well. Eventually, what ends up happening is you do your breathing for about 30 times, then that rate of breath that I said before […] like this for about 30 times. And then on the last one you’re breathing in […] you’re letting go […] and then you’re just laying still.
And you’ve been breathing quite a lot, you have a lot of oxygen inside your body that you’re just carrying around in your bloodstream and you’re just laying still, and you’re waiting for those CO2 levels to rise a little bit until you feel this urge to breathe. You take one sip of air […] and you hold that in for about 20 seconds. And then after 20 seconds, you release and then we start the next round. You do about four rounds of that, probably takes about 15, 20 minutes.
And that’s the breathwork that a lot of people have been kind of amazed by. Because a lot of people come to the different workshops that I’m running and things like that and they come there with the eyes focused solely on that ice bath that we’re going to do at the end. And about halfway through when we do the breathing with them, they’re like, oh, my goodness, I think that was the first time I’ve ever meditated before. I had such a calm mind, it was lovely sensations in the body and I wasn’t thinking about work, I wasn’t thinking about is the dog fed, any of that stuff. It was just very blissful for a lot of people, you know?
I was just going to say the two are very, very different from each other. And if you’ve got one really practical thing to actually get started, because you mentioned also that a lot of people out there, especially dads–busy life, they’re trying to get out there and go to work and get the kids where they need to go and drop the wife off at work or whatever. Sometimes the best way to start is just being aware of your breath. Just being aware that it’s not too often throughout the course of the day that you would check in with yourself and just be like, Okay, how is my breathing right now? You know? Usually it is that situation where someone cuts you off on the road or this kind of situation happens and we lose control of the breath. Unfortunately, that’s the point in time where somebody’s… the proverbial shit’s hit the fan, now, how am I going to control this?
[…] And your blood pressure is rising, your heart’s pounding. So we can prevent that from happening. That’s more of a reactive thing whereas if you’re practicing this breath, awareness, you’re more inclined to be sort of calmer breathing, more relaxed, the rate of breath is much lower, somewhere between… In a non-active state, experts are saying that somewhere between six to 10 breaths per minute is the optimal rates of breath, which is quite low but it is achievable and it’s very achievable. Every class or workshop that I give, we’re able to get practically everybody into this range in just a few minutes.
Darren: I think the one thing that I want to pick out there and some people listening to this might be thinking this just sounds mad. But I really challenge everybody to try it for the simple reason–and you use road rage scenario–it enables you in that split second, to respond and not react. And what I mean by that is that because you’re aware of your breath, you’re kind of subconsciously like, “I’m getting irate or my breathing is rising, I just need to stop, reflect.” And it’s a split second which you can then take hold of your breath, you can calm yourself down, and then you just let it go. And then you just carry on.
Particularly things get very stressful with children sometimes and instead of just maybe barking at them or just letting the situation get out of control, you just stop for that split second, take a few deep breaths, and then you deal with the situation. So I think that’s really, really valuable. Like I said, the whole being aware of breath, it sounds just crazy, but I really challenge everyone listening to this to actually try it.
Leigh: I would even take that, if I could, even a step further and maybe even take a breath with the child. Maybe ask them, hey, just breathe […] One more with daddy […] Like this. Because you know what kids are like in the morning: they get all excited, they have a bit of sugar, they’re running about and they’re not trying to make life difficult for anyone but they’re just little humans doing what they’ve got to do based on what knowledge they have or don’t have. You can make a little game with them or a little exercise where they just take a couple of breaths with dad or mum at home.
That’s something that was really profound for me to understand, actually, what the breath does. Why we even breathe oxygen is because we actually need oxygen to come into the body to break down the nutrients. So when we’re eating food, we actually need oxygen to come to sort of combine with those and break down the nutrients in order to create this molecule, ATP that is actually your energy that the body can actually use.
And the way you breathe and the rate of breath has a direct relationship and correlation with the amount of energy that you’re producing in the body. So if you’re stressed out of an evening, you’ve just had an argument… That’s why a lot of people don’t like working out really late at night and then going to bed because you’ve just been breathing a lot. You’ve been producing and creating a lot of energy and then you’ve got to hit the handbrake and you’ve got to try and go to sleep.
It’s the same when you’re in these stressed states or you just want to have this nice smooth energy production over the course of the day. I loved what you said before, mate, in terms of this… A lot of bad things have happened on this planet by people not having control of themselves, you know? A split instance where they just make a really horrible decision or something like this. And in a lot of cases, they’re not bad people or anything; it’s just that something nasty just happened because they’ve just had that rush of blood to the brain really, as they say.
Those road rage things. Everyone on this planet’s talking about how bloody busy they are and then suddenly somebody for whatever reason, even in a normal traffic situation, the car comes in front and then that can start a horrible situation. It can culminate in any kind of disaster. It’s just about having the self-awareness to say, “Is that really that important to me? I’m so busy: do I really have time to worry about that guy or whoever it is cut me off or any of this sort of stuff?” With the breathing, it controls all these mechanisms in the body, and especially your energy, and especially your heart rate, and all of these key things that help contribute to you being you.
Darren: Yeah, definitely. I think it enables you to be you. A lot of the times when we react, after the event, we’re like, “Why did I behave like that? Why did I do that?” And it’s just having that awareness and like you say, that split second. I loved what you said about the children. I’d never ever considered that before but that’s a brilliant way. Because what that then teaches the children is that’s teaching them, “just respond, don’t react.” And you know, it is nothing to do with the kids. We are responsible for them and to bring them up. If as parents we then teach them how to deal with emotion and react and not respond, it’s just going to make them much better humans as they grow up.
Leigh: Like I said, it can be just a little game or something like that with the kids. They’ll probably end up saying, “Come on, daddy. Now breathe.” And you’ll be like, “Okay, yep.”
Darren: They will, they definitely will. They’re like little sponges. So with people listening to this today and they really liked the idea of the cold water therapy and breathing, what five key actions, Leigh, would you suggest the listeners could take away today to implement into their lives to improve?
Leigh: I think in terms of cold, I really think the mindset is just like anything. You’ve just got to commit to it. You’ve got to basically say “I want this. I want to give it a go.” You commit to the thing. I also do these 21-day Cold Shower Challenge, these kinds of things. It’s quite useful for people because when you’re in the shower, it’s a solitary thing. You’re in there and you are confronted. It’s kind of the weakest moment of the day, right? In a sense, you’re waking up and you’ve got that little “get out” clause of that red tap there. You’ve just got to commit to it. That’s why I think the mindset is a really powerful thing. If you’re able to commit to something relatively small in a way, just a cold shower or just finishing the shower with 20, 30 seconds cold, and you make that commitment to yourself, that’s the number one thing.
Then the thing is not to beat yourself up about it, too. It’s a very vulnerable thing when you can’t breathe, like if feel like you’re […] struggling to breathe in the shower, so just don’t beat yourself up about it. Go easy on yourself. Go gently, don’t force anything. That’s another part of that. There’s no force in this kind of thing. It sounds crazy but you will end up enjoying that. If you commit to that and you do it for 21 days or plus, like some of us we’ve been doing cold showers for years now–straight, just always cold shower–this is a key part of it as well.
And then eventually you want to take it a little bit further. Let’s say like maybe finding a way to get outside to do that. The local swimming halls around here, we have these… I think it might be the same over there. I think you’ve got these cold pools in there? You’ve probably got these cold pools? You won’t find a safer place to do a cold exposure than to go to the swimming pool because you should have a lifeguard there on duty somewhere as well. And if you’re worried, you can always just let them know that you’re going to try and stay a minute in here or 30 seconds or something like that, however it goes. But that’s a really, really, really powerful thing to do.
I think this is probably the biggest takeaway for anybody listening as to why you’d want to do the cold exposure. Is because if you’re able to stay in there for about 90 seconds to 120 seconds, which is about two minutes, from probably about 10 degrees and below, you actually reset your white blood cell count in your body. This is without doubt the biggest finding in all of this cold exposure because we were talking a little bit about inflammation before and that the cold actually assisted the inflammatory response. But then when I looked a bit deeper into this, what ended up happening was all these white blood cells, they accumulate in the body because of stress.
So it can be the road rage thing that we’ve been talking about, it can also be blue light from the computer screen, it can be environmental factors, pollution, any of these kinds of things. Every time we’re bombarded with these little bits of stress, your body’s kind of reacting to that and it’s producing white blood cells. What happens is, over the course of time, if we’re over producing these white blood cells at a rapid rate for an extended period of time, we’re more inclined to get these nasty autoimmune issues. For example arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, a whole host of things. And it feels like every time, if you go and type in “autoimmune issues,” there’s another bunch of them that I can’t even pronounce or say.
So we are in this epidemic of these autoimmune issues which is in a direct correlation with the amount of stress that we’re under, and we’re suffering from on a day to day basis as well. That’s because of the response inside of your body and the white blood cells. So what we can do is if we have this prolonged cold exposure for a few minutes, then we’re able to actually suppress that response–the innate immune system response–and I guess you could say it balances or regulates the production of the white blood cells in your body. And therefore it resets that in a way. So that’s without doubt the reason to do that.
Then of course, there’s this other side of it too… I think we’re up to about four now if we’re talking about things here. The fourth one is, I’ve not been sick since doing this and I’m not even joking. It’s probably gone on about six, seven years now. I literally can’t remember when was the last time I was sick. This is just because I put it down to very, very healthy lifestyle. I mean, I’m like most people. Someone’s celebrating a birthday, I go out for a pint or a beer. Over here they like a bit of the Jägermeister or something like that. I like a drink every now and then but I wouldn’t drink alcohol on a weekly basis, that’s for sure.
I do have a pretty healthy lifestyle but the cold–I’ve kept up this regular cold exposure at least once a week. At least once a week I would have that good couple of minutes in the cold, in a cold body of water. I’m like, I’m not sick; it’s great. I’m there. I’m there for people that rely on me and need me so that’s a really, really strong one as well.
At this point, I should also mention that the cold showers, the cold exposure we get from the cold shower is not enough of an effect to get all these inflammatory responses and all of those. It does need to be in a cold body of water for a couple of minutes. The cold shower is just sort of like surface; it’s not enough exposure to get that response in the body. We’re researching all this stuff but we’ll probably learn more and more as time passes. But what we do know is the cold exposure in a body of water is actually for a couple of minutes: that’s a key one. That will literally keep you alive.
Then the last point here, and this is kind of on the breathing side of things again. But it’s a mirror of who you are. When you go to the cold, it’s literally a reflection of who you are at that moment in time. If you think about it, when you’re waking up in the morning and you go and have a cold shower and you’re like you’re waking up, you’re in this active state… Once you realise that’s a normal response in your body and you’re not weak, you’re not a loser, you’re not a wimp because you can’t breathe, you can’t have two full breaths of air in and out in a cold shower or any of this sort of thing. You’re just a normal functioning human being. And when you start to connect again with the body and what this body’s capable of, you can use the breath as a gateway to all of these things.
I often say that if you think about it, we’re just these vehicles just cruising around, right? For most of us, breathing is something like we’re in the passenger seat. We’re just looking out the window, looking at the scenery as the vehicle’s passing through these little places. With breathing, we can actually jump into the driver’s seat. We can jump into the driver’s seat and we can control this vehicle and we can take it where we need to, where we would like to go. I think that’s something that a lot of us–I don’t want to say take for granted, but some of us are just not even aware of that.
Because we can breathe. Right now we’re just breathing automatically, autonomously. But every so often we can actually choose how we want to breathe. And I think that’s something that’s really powerful. If you remember that when you’re in the cold shower or in the cold exposure–having a cold exposure–you remember that you are actually in control of the breath. That is a really profound thing and it actually helps everything. Helps all the processes and all the situations that we find ourselves in.
Darren: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s so valuable. As humans, we often over-complicate things and we look for solutions outside of ourselves. And actually, everything we need is within ourselves. I think the cold water therapy and the breathwork… Like I said before, people might think it’s strange, they might think it’s out of the ordinary, but I really challenge everybody to try it because it will make such a difference. You’ve got all the tools there; you don’t want anything else.
Leigh: One more thing, mate. One more thing, sorry. We spoke at the start about this kind of group. A group situation where people are coming together. Honestly, it’s just a great thing to get a bunch of people together and go for a dip. I know there’s a group down in Brighton down there: they, every morning without fail, they’re down there. Of course they’ve got this lovely sea down there. Not everyone has the sea close by but I’m sure there’s ponds or there’s a lake or some body of water, or the local pool. You can get people together and bring people together around this and it’ just really nice. You do get that kind of warm, fuzzy feeling. I mean, that’s the thing, right? When you’re cold, the body wants to heat up and of course, that means it also taps in a little bit to the weight loss and the fat burning thing as well, because that’s also a key factor here as well.
But that community thing is what I’m mentioning here because I think that’s a powerful thing as well. Getting some people together. A group of dads together, a group of people from the local gym or the football team, and just having an ice bath together or having a dip at the like, having a coffee after. It’s a good social thing to do as well. I think, as you mentioned correctly, I think that’s something that we’re just missing. We all need a little bit of support, we all want to have a bit of banter and share the experiences and learn and take a load off and know that we’re not alone. The same problem that I have with my son, actually everyone else has got the same thing: it’s just the same age thing or whatever.
Darren: Yeah, that’s so valuable. Like you say, we do take that for granted and I think it’s massively overlooked, although awareness is being raised, particularly around men and mental health and all that kind of stuff. That human connection. Everybody needs it, it is healthy for you. To get people to go down to a lake, to a park, and just have a chat. It just makes so much difference.
Just one final point is around going into bodies of water at this time of year. There’s groups at the Serpentine in London that do it. The one thing that I found and when I go lake swimming in the early part of the season, around March-April time, it’s absolutely freezing. But the one thing that you do get when you come out is you’re so revitalized. It sounds crazy but you are. You’re so more switched on and yeah, like I say, I definitely recommend that everyone at least gives it a go.
Leigh, we could probably talk for hours and hours and hours more. It’s been amazing. People should come back and listen to this again because some of the stuff in there, particularly around the kids and the breathwork, is just so profound and I highly recommend that you put it into your daily lives. How can people connect with you, Leigh? What social channels, what website, what books have you got, or events?
Leigh: People can just find me through my website, which is my name. It’s LeighEwin.com. Not Lee like Bruce Lee but LeighEwin.com. Then of course, just my name, lowercase letters, on Instagram is a really good way to connect with me as well. That’s where I do the cold shower challenge so if anybody wants to give it a go, we’re about to launch that next week, I think it’s Wednesday next week. We’re going to launch the cold shower challenge so you might get a few people that are willing to… I’ll give you a pre warning. You do have to see me in the shower and that’s not full. Don’t worry; it’s not full. It’s a cold shower.
I kind of show the breathing techniques as I’m doing it. We have a bit of a schedule so it builds up and you get more comfortable with it. And there’s a little bit of support: I answer questions and all that kind of thing. That could be a good way to get started, you know? Before they all join you for lake swimming.
Darren: Amazing. Yeah, exactly. I think I’m going to join your 21 day challenge because after speaking to you today, I’m going to master the cold shower. Definitely. It’s got me all pumped up to nail it. Awesome, Leigh. Thanks very much for your time again today. I really appreciate it.
Leigh: Keep up the good work, mate. You’re doing a really good job there of getting the message out there to all the dads. To be honest, it’s sometimes a bit a neglected kind of thing. The demographic, you could say. So it’s really good that you’ve taken the time and the commitment to spreading the news for health of the dads out there.
Darren: Yeah, thanks very much. I really appreciate that. That means a hell of a lot. I’m very passionate and committed. Thanks very much, Leigh.
Leigh: Thank you, mate. See you soon.
Darren: Thanks for listening to the Fitter Healthier Dad podcast. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please hit subscribe and I would really appreciate it if you could leave a review on iTunes. All the links mentioned in the episode will be in the show notes and a full transcription is over at FitterHealthierDad.com.