Wim Hoff’s Ten-Week Program: Whys and Whats.
I had been watching Wim Hoff and his “movement” for a year or more before he rolled out his on-line course. Frankly, I had been suspicious of the whole thing, partly because of the very enthusiastic nature of many of the participants —it had a kind of cultish feel, and the promises made were, I felt, immodest.
In addition to this, many of the actual feats that Wim had achieved — climbing Everest in a pair of shorts, staying immersed in ice for two hours, running the Mojave with no water, etc., seemed kind of like circus acts, freak show items that probably didn’t have to do with sustainable human health and well-being. Also, I suspected deep down that this thing so many people are doing — looking for immortality, endless improvement — is misguided, possibly manic, and ill-advised. Although I kind of do it too.
Part of what was appealing, admittedly, was the challenge: Most of human history has been a catalogue of ways in which we humans innovate to make our lives easier. Creatures are all creatures of comfort. The snag has usually been that comfort is not a limitless commodity. There are only so many hours of sunshine to bask in; one only finds a bees’ nest full of honey occassionally. But for us Westerners — and many Easterners and Southerners today as well — life is easier than it has ever been. Having to brave the elements has become a matter of choice, not necessity. We have heaters, everywhere, clothes, chairs, remotes. You get the picture. And wonderful tho’ these things are, they do make us soft. But the specifics of this softness of ours is important; they actually make us sick, eroding our ability to function as we have evolved to function. Our metabolism should fire up to keep us warm, instead of our house’s furnace. Our glutes and ham strings should bear the weight of us squatting, strengthening them, instead of relying on the sofa to catch us as we back up to it and fall. Being outdoors for hours, our eyes should be constantly flexing between long and short distances, instead of becoming increasingly myopic within the walls of our cubicle.
So a little hardship? In the cause of regaining a little of our ancestral physiology? OK.
I latched onto Wim’s assertion that what he was doing was affecting the autonomic nervous system, and the immune system — bulletproofing it, in fact was how he frequently put it. His method, as detailed in the workbook available to his students, was developed over the course of his life in conditions of extreme cold. His teacher, he likes to say, was “hard nature!”
The fact that he is bringing what he learned over years of experience (experience endured as far as one can tell for no monetary gain) to the general public is appealing. Now, however, he has certainly created a movement that does generate income — a kind of family business — and this detracts a little from the purity of the endeavor. But hey; I am not one to deny someone a living, and frankly, what he has developed has value. Possibly to millions.
Using breathing techniques, exposure to cold, and controlling his “mindset,” WH was able to withstand extreme temperatures and explore his “physiological limits.” I had occassionally tried to explore mine, and found that it did not take very long. And after being prodded and probed during various university studies, WH generated reputable scientific data backing up his claim that he was able to control his autonomic nervous system (the thing that operates unconsciously to control stuff like immune response, breathing, metabolic rate, etc). This is somewhat revolutionary. Some people who meditate a lot report similar results, such as lowering of blood pressure and consequent stress-reduction. This would be much more appealing than taking medication, and is therefore a major argument in favor of such techniques.
I eventually overcame my suspicions that this was a macho red-herring enough to cough up the $175 for the program. I felt that with such an apparent groundswell of interest in his work, a bunch of scientific data to back it up, and an apparent lack of any serious naysayers that I could find, it was probably worth trying. I, like most people, am looking for that edge, that silver bullet.
The course came with a 30-page pdf work book which described his method and provided a scientific exploration of the breathing techniques and the cold exposure. I will explain these in brief, because they are kind of technical.
Breath: Perhaps the cornerstone of his method, this is beguilingly simple. It involves taking thirty (+/-) deep breaths. In his videos he and his students are seated cross-legged, although some of them take to lying down. There seems to be nothing particularly special about these breaths — deep in, no holding, not all the way out. That was the level of specificity. You might feel tingly, faint, etc. As one friend of mine put it, “uh, yeah, ‘cos you’re hyperventilating.”
WH is after the increase in the blood’s alkalinity, the shifting PH balance effected by deep breathing, and the subsequent increase in oxygen and decrease in carbon dioxide. The benefit of this is that the blood can create Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) — the “energy molecule” — more effectively, leading to more stamina.
Cold Immersion: perhaps the second, or equal-first, pillar: This is the hard part, though. It is not easy to take a ten-minute cold shower or remain immersed in freezing water for minute or more. Believe. me.
After prolonged exposure to extreme cold, bad things usually start happening. Tissue necrosis, for example, or dying cells; hypothermia as well. But WH is able to withstand an ice bath for 2 hours. Most of us begin to suffer hypothermia after 3 minutes of exposure below 30 degrees C. He is able to maintain his body temperature at about 37 degrees C for hours. This is unusual.
WH attributes this largely to his practice, although there is some evidence that he is different to most of us. Science allocates things like body temperature and metabolic rate to the autonomic nervous system, something over which we are supposed to have no conscious control. WH seems to have control of this system, however, possibly because of his practice (and possibly his genes). Assuming that we won’t readily reach his level of ability, however, we can say that cold-immersion does increase the body’s metabolic rate, and this leads to an increase in white blood cells, and therefore boosts the immune system.
The third element or pillar of the WH method is “Mindset.” This is perhaps the wooliest part of the system. It is important, he maintains, to access a “strong mindset” before embarking on the cold-exposure part of the plan. When I read this, I had a “no-shit-Sherlock moment,” before reading on. But how to do that?
This is one of the purposes of the breathing techniques — they put you in a more contemplative state of mind. The mental results, as well as the physiological results, allow one to reap the benefits of cold exposure without danger to the system, your mind somehow controlling the body’s response to cold.
researching cold exposure briefly on the internet, I came across a video of Marines being forced to jump into a frozen lake — frozen as in they cut a hole in the ice, and in they went. What was interesting, however, is how totally unprepared any of them appeared to be. They were instructed to stay in for 10 seconds. Most of them barely made it, and you could see how they were panicking; they leapt out with superhuman strength after about 8.5 seconds, like salmon jumping up a fish-ladder. Now, I haven’t tried cutting a hole in a lake yet, but since the WH program I’ve been in very, very cold water, and, yes, its hard, but I’ve managed more than one minute. Those Marines probably could have benefitted from some prior training along the lines described below, if they intend to continue their ice-bathing habits.
That’s a very thumb-nail sketch of the theoretical big picture. But how did the practice unfold?
Week One introduced me to Wim and his five students variously arranged around a modest yoga-like studio. It was a simple set-up. A couple of cameras rolled as he spoke to them, then they got down to the program. For the first three weeks the participants were all young men, probably in their twenties.
Just as with all the other videos I had seen of Wim, he was direct, spoke with slightly awkward English, but with a hip — if somewhat dated — style, using words like “cool,” and “man” a lot. One of his biggest draws is that he is enthusiastic, and this is a large part of his charisma. People tend to follow people who can do stuff. He clearly can, and this is what we all want from him. But it is not enough that he is able to tolerate cold, and hold his breath. He has also achieved pretty astounding feats, catalogued in the Guinness Book of Records.
The first few weeks of the program focussed mostly on multiple rounds of breathing. Initially he had us doing three rounds of breathing. Thirty to forty breaths (I usually stuck to 30, being impatient to get to the next part). Then we were instructed to hold our breath on the out-breath, for as long as felt reasonable, that is to say without forcing it.
I found initially that after the first round I could manage a minute or more, but usually managed to make it to 2 or 2.5 minutes by the third round. Once or twice I hit three minutes without breathing, but interestingly I did not find that I could progressively hold my breath for longer as the weeks went on. My ability usually topped out at around 2.5 minutes. For the record, I am a relative fit 50-year-old with a history of smoking in my teens/twenties. But ultimately as he pointed out, it was not about how long you could hold. The important thing was to hold.
The weeks of the program rolled by with small changes to the plan. He had us repeat the breathing techniques and breath-holding. At one point he introduced the step of doing as many push -ups as possible after the final breathing round. Starting on the out-breath, it was possible, he said, to do many more push ups in one go than one could ordinarily. I found this to be interestingly true, and increased mine by 50%.
Each session ended with a few rather random yoga exercises. These felt like a filler, like a way to pad out the program. By mid-program we were taking cold showers after the breathing exercises. Then we began alternating hot and cold showers to work our vascular systems, as veins and arteries expanded and contracted. Then on about week 6 we were told to have a 10-minute cold shower, every day.
After having experienced one or two-minute-long cold showers, 10 minutes was a massive step. The mind went places in those ten minutes. Of course this experience will differ depending on how cold your shower water gets and what the ambient temp is wherever you are. I was in southern Spain in winter — which gets surprisingly chilly — and the water was coming from a cold underground place. It was a kind of meditation in which one could almost separate the pain and discomfort of the cold from one’s own experience, and examine it as something apart.
Simultaneous with the extended cold showers we were instructed to practice breathing techniques prior to, and then during, the showers. Perhaps this assisted in handling the cold, but it was difficult to tell what the difference might have been.
For the final three weeks of the program we did more breathing, longer showers and more difficult yoga poses (the Crow and the Shelf of particular note). What was interesting and perhaps disturbing, was how after about week 5, the students in Wim’s core group began disappearing. For a week or two there was a young woman (women statistically don’t show up in large numbers in the ranks of Hoff followers). Then she disappeared. Then by week 10, the program’s end, Hoff was left with only one young man. The two of them walked through the snow barefoot and bare-chested near his Polish home, and then dunked themselves in a pond, in a slightly desultory, wintery kind of John-the -Baptist moment.
The disappearance of his groupies disturbed me. Maybe it shouldn’t have. But I suspected it might have represented a vote of no confidence in the entire system. Not long after I concluded the program, I noticed on the WH website an initiative — a marketing drive — that was exclusively geared towards women. This made sense. All the talk was of the benefits to the human metabolic and immune system, not to men’s systems. So why were women less drawn to it? Probably because this kind of exposure to cold and holding of breath, and achievements in “hard nature” appealed more to an ultimately macho sense of struggle. As my wife felt, the whole thing was extreme.
What of my own achievement?
Well, I have to say that despite my best efforts to stick with the program and do it as carefully as I could, I cannot really report significant improvements in my well being. I must say, however, that I am not discounting the likelihood that I have experienced benefits, but not noticeable ones. They might be the type that accrue over time as the benefits of long-term habits usually do.
Throughout the program I was slightly suspicious at how random much of the stuff we were told to do seemed to be. The breathing technique was quite unspecific — and contradicted much of what other experts say about breathing — that is to say its not about increasing oxygen as WH argues, but its about decreasing CO2. The Yoga exercises seemed almost pointless, just ways to fill time.
As I concluded my 10-week program (actually it took me more like 14 weeks) I came down with a massive head cold, to which I am not particularly susceptible. I cannot report to have had any gains in stamina, or much improved sleep. But who knows, that just might be me?
Ultimately, a year later, I am still practicing some breathing techniques, and taking fairly regular cold showers. This is because I think the science behind his practice is basically sound. The WH materials that accompany the program lay all of this out in a fairly credible way with research by legitimate scientists. In addition to this I can find very little material that contradicts what WH is arguing. Whether or not these practices will create significant change for you depends perhaps on who you are, how you practice, and how your particular system operates. It is also important to remember that the WH system is only one part of the puzzle as far as human health and well-being are concerned. You might institute them as part of your daily or weekly regimen, but neutralize them by excessive alcohol consumption, or a terrible diet, or by being a shitty person.
I like WH and his people, and I think they are on to something. I also think, however, that many people will grab onto this as yet another silver bullet, a magical elixir. But unlike elixirs, to get the benefits of WH you have to work at it hard to realize any benefits, and these benefits will differ with each person. I am not one to jump on bandwagons. But I think that following many of these core principles can in theory lead to improved health outcomes for many. The extent to which it does depends on a host of variables which you will need to line up effectively for yourself.