Extreme Cryotherapy: Healing at 216 Degrees Below

Reporter checks out spa where cold immersion is a new fad to rid wrinkles.

ByReporter's Notebook By NICK WATT
January 5, 2009, 1:45 PM

Jan. 6, 2009— -- It looks like a sinister sauna located in an otherwise lovely health spa outside London. Here man -- and woman -- is plumbing new depths in search of younger looking skin. On the brink of a slightly early midlife crisis, I decided to join the ranks of the vain, wrinkled and fat to find out whether "extreme cryotherapy" is worth it.

Renata, my officious host at the Champneys Health Resort, carried out a brief medical examination -- I passed -- then ordered me to strip. I'd been told I would be allowed to wear a T-shirt to preserve some dignity. Renata laughed at me.

"It might freeze to your skin," she said with a scoff.

Wearing nothing but a pair of cotton boxer shorts, I then suffered the humiliation of standing in front of a fan to dry my underarms. Again, Renata was forced to explain the horrors of sweat freezing to my skin. I felt safe in her hands.

Cryotherapy, or cold immersion, has been used for centuries to treat everything from depression to impotence. Athletes use it to aid muscle recovery. We've all seen the star quarterback with a worried look on his face and his injured elbow in a bucket of ice.

But I was amazed to find out that there is absolutely no scientific proof that chilling does the human body any good whatsoever. Anyhoo, I donned a pair of cotton socks, gloves, ear protectors and a small face mask to stop my breath freezing and jumped into the cryotherapy chamber. Get this: The temperature in there is 216 degrees below freezing. That is nearly 100 degrees colder than the lowest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth.

I spent two minutes inside with Jon Goodman, who trains elite athletes and loves the chamber. He had a six-pack and infectious enthusiasm. He held a camera, asked me questions and looked for any danger signs in my behavior. The sensation was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It didn't feel cold. It's a dry cold that I felt gradually penetrating my body.

Goodman asked whether I was shivering. I honestly couldn't tell. My normal sensory perception was shot. Concern that my heart was about to explode was mixed with a strange euphoria. Apparently what was happening was this: My blood was rushing to the core of my body to protect my vital organs and save my life. Good to know I have that function. The only noise I could hear was the clogs on my feet banging against the floor. I must have been shivering.

After two minutes, my time was up. You can't stay in too long or you will die. I was a bit disoriented. Renata ordering me to, "moving! moving! moving!" didn't help. But once the initial shock faded, I did feel great. That was the feeling of my blood rushing back to my extremities.

The whole thing felt like torture to me. So why are they offering it at the Champneys Spa? Well, because the anecdotal evidence from Poland, Japan, and now London is mounting that it makes you feel and look good. Helena, one of the spa managers, said she's noticed a marked difference in her skin. I didn't see the before version, but I can confirm her skin does now look lovely.

One session wasn't enough to plump up my sagging cheeks. But I felt wonderful for the rest of the day. I felt like I'd done a hard workout, but I hadn't even gone to the gym. Perfect.

I love endorphins, but I find exercise a bit boring.

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