The Wim Hof Breathing Method: Healthy Living or Masochistic Fad?
Plunge into icy rivers. Walk barefoot up mountains. Breathe deeply. Live longer?
He may not be the father of modern medicine, but Wim Hof thinks he knows the secret to health and longevity. By embracing the cold and “power breathing” with the so-called Wim Hof method, the 62-year-old Dutchman has garnered a considerable following over the course of his career as an extreme athlete. He and his many followers claim that the Wim Hof breathing technique can reduce stress, improve sleep, and even give your immune system a boost, among many other benefits. But does Wim Hof breathing method hold up under scrutiny? Unfortunately, the science backing the method is scarce. Here’s what we can glean from the evidence that is out there.
What Is the Wim Hof Method?
Wim Hof holds that by controlling your breath in a very specific way, exposing yourself to cold temperatures, and meditating, you can achieve some pretty impressive health and wellness results.
Breathing is central to the Wim Hof method. To perform Wim Hof breathing, take a strong breath, similar to a powerful sniff, through your nose and release it in a relaxed way from your mouth. Repeat this 30 to 40 times. On the final breath, release all but about 10 percent of your lung capacity, and hold the remaining breath for as long as you can. When you can’t hold out any longer, inhale and hold it for 15 seconds.
The second pillar of the Wim Hof method is exposure to cold temperatures. Typically, this means either taking cold showers or ice baths. Hof himself has set the world record for full-body exposure to ice 16 times. He holds records for barefoot half-marathons in ice and snow and also climbed Mount Everest to 24,600’ in nothing but shorts and shoes. But that’s not necessary for the everyday dabbler.
Practitioners of the Wim Hof method recommend doing it for at least 20 minutes per day, and doing it daily, to see the best results. This is another reason why willpower is an integral aspect of the method: It takes dedication to practice it every day, especially if you wake up in the morning and don’t particularly feel like submerging yourself in ice that day.
Does the Wim Hof Method Work?
There is no data available to back up most of the purported benefits of the Wim Hof method, but some benefits — namely to the immune system and athletic performance — are backed by the odd study or two.
Two studies have shown that the Wim Hof method might positively affect those with certain inflammatory disorders. In 2019, a group of people living with axial spondyloarthritis, which causes joint pain and discomfort from inflammation, practiced the Wim Hof Method. Those who tried the method showed improvement in some inflammatory markers compared to the control group.
And in a 2014 study, researchers showed that participants practicing the three pillars of the Wim Hof method — power breathing, meditation, and immersion in ice water — could voluntarily influence their sympathetic nervous and immune systems. Before the study, scientists had thought this was impossible to do. But the 12 participants who engaged in the Wim Hof method released more epinephrine, which caused their bodies to produce more anti-inflammatory mediators. And when they were given a toxin, they were better able to fight it off than people in the control group.
When it comes to physical exertion, 24 nonathletes out of a group of 26 were able to finish a trek up Mount Kilimajaro using the Wim Hof technique. The method appeared to help prevent and treat acute mountain sickness, but this observation was not part of a scientific study.
Another study found that one session of Wim Hof breathing may help improve cycling performance, but a second study found that it didn’t help with sprinting. So the results are mixed about whether Wim Hof breathing can help you be a better athlete.
The Bottom Line About the Wim Hof Breathing Technique
Although there’s evidence that the Wim Hof method has some benefits, a lot more research is needed to prove that it’s anything but controlled hyperventilation mixed with a slightly masochistic ice bath. Obviously, if you’re interested in trying it out, check with your health care provider before getting started. And please, don’t try to climb Everest barefoot.
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