Should you hit the deep freeze to recover better?
I’m standing in a cryotherapy chamber and exposing my body to temperatures well below -140 C for three minutes. It’s chilly, but bearable, much like standing naked in front of a freezer. I now have something in common with Worldtour cyclists, and nhl and nba players. There has been an ever-growing popularity with the use of cryotherapy for athletic recovery and, being an avid cyclist, my curiosity got the better of me. So here I stand with my head sticking out of this padded chamber while liquid nitrogen vapours envelope my entire body in a deep freeze. I’m actually quite at ease with my mittens and booties on. With no humidity accompanying this introduction to extreme temperatures, it’s a somewhat comfortably cool experience. Previously, this cold therapy had only been accessible to top athletes and sports teams willing to invest in the $60,000 units. With spas and wellness clinics now adding these chambers to their lines of health and beauty treatments, recreational athletes can now pay around $60 a session, making cryotherapy a growing trend.
“I don’t think it’s becoming more popular now. I think it’s been popular for decades already. We see more endorsements from different celebrities and people who have been using it that have influence,” says Roman Gersh, owner of Cryotherapy Toronto.
Cryotherapy is said to trigger the fight-or-flight response in your system. During this time, blood rushes to the core and becomes oxygen-enriched, which restores energy and stimulates quicker recovery. Because of the i ncrease in blood flow, more oxygen restores energy to muscles, reduces inflammation, creating a more efficient recovery.
“We’re trying to fool the brain into thinking you’re about to freeze so that it starts to release a lot of beneficial mechanisms into your bloodstream,” Gersh says.
Not only is it said to help with sports performance, but some have said it has weight-loss and beauty benefits. Celebrities such as Tony Robbins, Lindsay Lohan, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Aniston have all added cryotherapy to their health regimens.
Too bad, however, there is no science to back up any of these claims. Even though cryotherapy has been around since the late 1970s, no data substantiates the positive benefits, whether it be sports performance, skin or dietary benefits. More study is also needed to gauge the long-term effects.
There has been one death due to cryotherapy, but it was a spa worker who trapped herself inside a unit after closing and froze to death. Most units have magnetic doors that easily push open, preventing this type of accident from happening. Technicians have been advised to never use these chambers without supervision. Other adverse effects could be inert gas asphyxiation from breathing in the liquid nitrogen vapours, as well as frostbite.
Despite the risks, sports teams, celebrities and recreational athletes are increasingly signing up for their weekly fix.
After exiting the chamber, I do feel a certain vigour and am excited to get moving and trigger heat back into the body. Whether or not I will experience heightened athletic recovery, time will only tell. One session is not enough to form a proper conclusion, and I’m told five to 10 sessions are recommended to truly feel the benefits.
With only weak evidence and theoretical benefits, the question remains: is cryotherapy a fad or does the science need to catch up with this trend?