I hate being cold. I’m that person. There’s always at least one in a group who can never seem to get warm, even living in sunny Southern California. So why in the world would I subject my body to whole-body cryotherapy, a treatment where you stand almost naked in a chamber set to 150 degrees below zero for up to three minutes?
Well, because some pretty hefty health benefits are being claimed, and I thought that if I’m cold all the time anyway, how much worse could I feel?
Cryotherapy is one of the latest buzzwords in the health industry, but the practice has actually been around since at least 2500 B.C., according to Dr. Anatoli Freiman and Dr. Nathaniel Bouganim, who penned a paper about the treatment’s history. Ever put ice on your body to reduce pain and inflammation? That, in a nutshell, is cryotherapy, which simply means treating the body with extreme cold.
Ice baths, used by elite athletes and weekend warriors alike for sore muscles post-workout, is another version. But what if there was a faster and easier way to treat those aching muscles than sitting in a tub of icy water for 20 minutes? Enter the cryotherapy chamber.
I made an appointment at NextHealth, a new concept wellness retailer, or “medi-spa,” focused on preventative health with the goal of personal longevity. The retailer offers a variety of options for its clients, such as anti-aging treatments, skin rejuvenation and vitamin boosts as well as testing for food sensitivities, genetic fit testing and customizable IV drips to address a variety of needs. When I arrived, I immediately felt calm. It’s a pretty, modern space with softly lit shelves and pale-blue accents.
What’s the Deal With Body Freezing?
I met with Kevin Peake, the president of NextHealth. If there is anyone who should be a walking advertisement for the treatments offered here, Peake is it. Tall and athletic with enviably smooth skin and bright blue eyes, he walked me through the cryotherapy procedure and how, using treatments like this and the other services NextHealth offers, he’s trying to change the landscape of health care.
Peake pointed out that they have the first non-nitrogen cryotherapy chamber made up of hyperoxygenated forced compressed air, a safer option that eliminates any concern of suffocating to death like the tragedy in 2015, when someone died in the old-style nitrogen room.
And to be clear, the chamber at NextHealth is more sauna than “chamber,” except rather than being surrounded by wood, you are surrounded by glass. You can choose to keep the glass clear if you are into people watching you freeze, or you can switch to privacy mode — smoking the glass with the flick of a switch. Within those glass walls is another, smaller room with a glass door. That’s where the real action happens.
The room is kept at the same temperature all day, optimizing each person’s use rather than having the space go dormant and becoming unbalanced like the older methods.
“So what’s the benefit,” I asked, “and how often should I be doing this to see results?”
“The treatment aims to drop your skin’s temperature 30 to 40 degrees, which sends your body into the fight-or-flight mode. When that happens, the blood in your body rushes to your vital organs, protecting them,” Peake told me. “It reduces inflammation; we see 40 to 50 percent muscle recovery for clients that come in for a treatment post-workout. It activates the production of collagen for more youthful skin. All the good things in your body start kicking in — like endorphins, serotonin and adrenaline.”
He recommended the cryo treatment at least once a week and, because the treatments are cumulative, doing it two to three times to see the optimal effects.
Of course I wanted to know about any weight-loss benefits. “We don’t promote that. You may burn a couple of hundred calories, but that’s not enough to use it as a weight-loss tool.” He explained that some people may feel energized after the treatment, so if they then go work out because of the adrenaline rush, the weight loss will come — but not solely through the treatment. Cryotherapy is also not to be confused with fat-freezing treatments like CoolSculpting, a process by which fat cells are frozen and die.
I tell him that I’m ready for the next step. At least, I thought I was.
Getting Suited Up for a Session
After I passed the mandatory blood pressure reading and filled out my medical history, he walked me over to the changing room, where a wraparound towel, socks, slippers, gloves, mittens and a face mask were all laid out. I got changed, leaving my sports bra and underwear on (but that’s optional as well).
Before stepping out, I double-checked the handy guide on the wall to make sure I hadn’t missed a step and had all the protective gear in place. With the biometric tests and science-lab outerwear, it was beginning to feel very medical, but what are doctors really saying about it?
Dr. Joseph Costello, senior lecturer in exercise physiology in the department of sport and exercise science at the University of Portsmouth, has spent a lot of time researching cryotherapy trying to answer this very question. He pointed me to his 2015 research paper, “Whole-Body Cryotherapy (Extreme Cold Air Exposure) for Preventing and Treating Muscle Soreness After Exercise in Adults,” in which he recognizes there is an urgent need for more high-quality research on what seems to be an underreported treatment.
The same paper concludes, “There is insufficient evidence from randomized controlled trials to determine whether whole-body cryotherapy (WBC) reduces self-reported muscle soreness, or improves subjective recovery, after exercise compared with passive rest or no WBC in physically active young adult males, females or elite athletes.” OK, sure, there’s also insufficient scientific evidence proving that chicken soup cures a cold, but we’re still reaching for cans of Campbell’s when the sniffles hit.
Can I Weather the Freeze?
As we entered the chamber (and turned on the smoked privacy mode), I was given some Beats wireless headphones and asked for my favorite music to keep me pumped up inside.
It turns out the headphones aren’t just a cool prop. “We recommend dancing and jumping around to distract from the cold,” said Peake. I picked Blur’s “Song 2,” a throwback that always has kept me pumped up.
“The first session is only going to be 2.5 minutes. Subsequent ones can be up to three minutes.” He set the timer and opened the second door that contains the actual chamber, and I was greeted by cool air. “You can always push this door open if you want to leave. It doesn’t lock,” he said. I gave him a thumbs-up sign through my woolly gloves and stepped into what felt like a meat locker. Not bad, I thought.
No wonder the Los Angeles Lakers like cryotherapy enough to have a chamber in their training facility. No one at the Lakers would comment on the use, but it seems like a quicker option for muscle recovery than the traditional method of sitting in an ice bath for 20 minutes. Yet even without scientific evidence supporting the use, non-athletes like Tony Robbins have also jumped on the cryotherapy train.
The superstar of self-help supposedly starts his day with a cryotherapy session — like a freezing-cold cup of coffee. Sure, why not? It felt cold, but strangely tolerable. I started to dance a bit when, 30 seconds into the session, a fan kicked on and it suddenly got five times colder — like someone was rubbing giant ice cubes all over my exposed body parts.
I danced harder, and 30 seconds later it was tolerable again. I looked at the clock. Only one minute down, one-and-a-half minutes to go. But it turned out the fan kicks on every other 30 seconds, fueling a roller coaster of tolerance followed by breathtaking, tears-freezing-on-your-cheeks coldness. “I’m going to bail on this treatment any second,” I said to myself.
Also, my song ended before my time was up, so here’s a pro tip: Choose a song that lasts at least as long as the treatment.
Finally, Peake opened the door for me and I stepped outside. I felt surprisingly exhilarated and had a heightened sense of awareness. I was weirdly not cold in that anticipation-shiver type of way. My skin felt cold to the touch, but I didn’t have an uncomfortably bone-chilling feeling. I went back to the changing room and stared at my reflection. I looked like I had been frosted. A shimmer of ice coated my lashes and hair. I got dressed, relieved it was over — and relieved I didn’t feel any colder than I usually do.
“How do you feel?” Peake asked when I exited the dressing room.
It took me a moment to form a response. “Strangely mellow, but happy and relaxed.” It was true. I felt so chilled out (yes, pun intended). And while I wasn’t sure I had the energy to go work out, I felt as good as I do after a great massage: puddly without feeling greasy from the oils.
And Is There Really a Reason To?
Maybe this blissed-out feeling is the real charm of cryotherapy. Do I feel better just because I’m so relieved to not be freezing anymore? Or is there some kind of endorphin release that can help ease pain? According to articles in the New York Times and The Guardian, the actual medical results are mixed, but for the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma (NISMAT) at Lenox Hill Hospital, there’s nothing equivocal about it.
Dr. Malachy McHugh, who leads a multidisciplinary research team and is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, an associate member of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine and a member of the Orthopaedic Research Society, says there’s just not enough evidence to support cryotherapy’s claims.
“The data supporting [cryotherapy chamber] use has been thoroughly underwhelming, and it is at best only as good as cold-water immersion for improving recovery after damaging exercise such as would occur after a soccer game, for example,” he says. Plus, he notes, cold-water immersion has only a small benefit on recovery anyway.
“I have not seen convincing evidence that it does anything meaningful. Some studies have shown small beneficial effects, but the sum of the research is quite clear that there is no major impact occurring here.”
He also noted that for muscle recovery and burnout, he’s seen more positive effects drinking tart cherry juice than regular cryotherapy chamber use. Say what? That’s not only more accessible, but it’s a lot cheaper than a session.
As for site-specific injuries, McHugh said that an old-school ice pack is the preferable treatment. “Ice bags or other cryotherapy application directly to the site of injury would be preferable for a specific injury…. The goal would be to target the injured tissue to cool it for pain relief and to limit blood flow and decrease local metabolism to limit the exaggerated post-injury inflammatory response that causes painful swelling.”
So where does that leave us? Is recreational use of whole-body cryotherapy beneficial or not? I think it all comes down to the consumer. After the cryotherapy chamber treatment I felt happy and relaxed, and that night I slept better than I had in weeks. Coincidence? Perhaps.
As Peake says, “Cold therapy has been around for hundreds of years, and cryotherapy is just the most advanced way of administering it with the help of technology.” Despite what the medical experts told me, Peake points out that most pro athletes do it, but there’s really only one way to tell if it works for you — trying it out.
It’s a good option if you are looking for something to improve your mood and/or speed up muscle recovery or have pain from an injury. It certainly doesn’t hurt. And if online reviews are worth any weight, the customers at NextHealth seem to be extremely happy with their cryotherapy sessions.