Hof immersed in an ice bath, 2007
|Born||20 April 1959|
Sittard, Limburg, Netherlands
|Other names||The Iceman|
Wim Hof (born 20 April 1959), also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He has set Guinness world records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and still holds the record for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow. He attributes these feats to his Wim Hof Method (WHM), a combination of frequent cold exposure, breathing techniques and meditation. Hof has been the subject of several medical assessments and a book by investigative journalist Scott Carney.
Hof was born in Sittard, Limburg, Netherlands as one of nine children, (in order of birth; Rob , John , Marianne , Wim and Andre [1959-identical twins], Ruud , Ed , Marcel , Jacqueline ) Hof has six children, four of them with his first wife Marivelle-Maria (Also called "Olaya"), who died by suicide in 1995, a son, born in 2003 to his girlfriend, and a son born in 2017 to his last girlfriend. When he was 17 he felt a sudden urge to jump into the freezing cold water of the Beatrixpark canal. Hof has said that his sadness over the loss of his first wife was formative in leading him to develop techniques to face low temperature environments.
On 16 March 2000, Hof set the Guinness World Record for farthest swim under ice, with a distance of 57.5 metres (188.6 ft). The swim at a lake near Pello, Finland was filmed for a Dutch television program, and a test run the previous day almost ended in disaster when his corneas started to freeze and he was swimming blind. A diver rescued him as he was starting to lose consciousness. A new record of 76.2 metres (250 ft) was set by Stig Severinsen in 2013.
On 26 January 2007, Hof set a world record for fastest half marathon barefoot on ice and snow, with a time of 2 hours, 16 minutes, and 34 seconds.
Hof has set the world record for longest time in direct, full-body contact with ice a total of 16 times, including 1 hour, 42 minutes and 22 seconds on 23 January 2009; 1 hour, 44 minutes in January 2010; and 1 hour 53 minutes and 2 seconds in 2013. This was surpassed in 2014 by Songhao Jin of China, with a time of 1 hour, 53 minutes and 10 seconds; and surpassed in 2019 by Josef Köberl of Austria, with a time of 2 hours, 8 minutes and 47 seconds.
In 2007, Hof climbed to an altitude of 7,200 metres (23,600 ft) on Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts and shoes, but failed to reach the summit due to a recurring foot injury. In February 2009, Hof reached the top of Mount Kilimanjaro within two days wearing only shorts and shoes. In 2016 he reached Gilmans point on Kilimanjaro with journalist Scott Carney in 28 hours, an event later documented in the book What Doesn't Kill Us. In September, he ran a full marathon in the Namib Desert without water, under the supervision of Dr. Thijs Eijsvogels.
Wim Hof Method
Wim Hof markets a regimen, the Wim Hof Method (WHM), created alongside his son Enahm Hof. The method involves three "pillars": cold therapy, breathing and meditation. It has similarities to Tibetan Tummo meditation and pranayama, both of which employ breathing techniques.
There are many variations of the breathing method. The basic version consists of three phases as follows:
- Controlled hyperventilation: The first phase involves 30 cycles of breathing. Each cycle goes as follows: take a powerful breath in, fully filling the lungs. Breathe out by passively releasing the breath, but not forcefully. Repeat this cycle at a steady pace thirty times. Hof says that this form of hyperventilation may lead to tingling sensations or light-headedness.
- Exhalation: After completion of the 30 cycles of controlled hyperventilation, take another deep breath in, and let it out completely. Hold the breath (with lungs empty) for as long as possible.
- Breath retention: When strong urges to breathe occur, take a full deep breath in. Hold the breath for around 15 – 20 seconds and let it go. The body may experience a normal head-rush sensation.
These three phases may be repeated for three consecutive rounds.
Preliminary and proof-of-principle studies of Hof's method, as well as similar breathing practices, have shown that hyperventilating can temporarily suppress the innate immune response as well as temporarily increase heart rate and adrenaline levels. However, the broader medical claims made by Hof, such as the treatment of cancer and auto immune disease, have not been validated by any rigorous peer reviewed research.
Resistance to cold
When exposed to cold, the human body can increase heat production by shivering, or non-shivering process known as thermogenesis in which BAT, also known as brown fat, converts chemical energy to heat. Mild cold exposure is known to increase BAT activity. A group of scientists in the Netherlands wondered whether frequent exposure to extreme cold, as practiced in the Wim Hof Method, would have comparable effects. The Hof brothers are identical twins, but unlike Wim, Andre has a sedentary lifestyle without exposure to extreme cold. The scientists had them practice Wim's breathing exercises and then exposed them to the lowest temperature that would not induce shivering. They concluded that, "No significant differences were found between the two subjects, indicating that a lifestyle with frequent exposures to extreme cold does not seem to affect BAT activity and CIT." Both had rises of 40% of their metabolic rates over the resting rate, compared to a maximum of 30% observed in young adults. However, their brown fat percentage – while high for their age – was not enough to account for all of the increase. The rest was due to their vigorous breathing, which increased the metabolic activity in their respiratory muscles. The researchers cautions that the "results must be interpreted with caution given the low subject number and the fact that both participants practised the g-Tummo like breathing technique."
The related g-Tummo involves special breathing accompanied by meditation involving mental images of flames at certain locations in the body. There are two types of breathing, "forceful" and "gentle". A scientific study found that only the forceful type results in an increase in body temperature, and that meditation was required to sustain the temperature increase.
Immune system suppression
Peter Pickkers and his PhD student Matthijs Kox of the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands took blood samples from Hof before and after his regimen of breathing, meditation and an 80-minute full-body ice bath, and found that afterwards he had reduced levels of proteins associated with the immune response.
Pickkers and Kox injected him with an endotoxin that normally would stimulate a rapid immune response. Most subjects responded with flu-like symptoms (fever, headaches and shivering), with affected cells releasing signalling proteins called cytokines. Hof, on the other hand, had no flu-like symptoms and half as many cytokines as control subjects. Moreover, later, after he had trained some volunteers for a week, they too had reduced symptoms.
Pickkers and Kox attributed the effect on the immune system to a stress-like response. In the hypothalamus, stress messages from the brain trigger a release of adrenaline, which increases the pumping of blood and releases glucose, both of which can help the body deal with an emergency. It also suppresses the immune system. In Hof and the trained subjects, the adrenaline release was higher than it would be after a person's first bungee jump. It is not yet known which part of the training (cold exposure, breathing or meditation) is primarily responsible for the effect, or whether there are long-term training effects.
Critics of Hof say he overstates the benefits of his method, giving false hope to people suffering from serious diseases, and some of his claims have been uncritically reported by the media. On his website he says that it has reduced symptoms of several diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease; He has also said it might cure some forms of cancer. Wouter van Marken Lichtenbelt, one of the scientists who studied Hof, stated that "[Hof's] scientific vocabulary is galimatias. With conviction, he mixes in a non-sensical way scientific terms as irrefutable evidence." However, Van Marken Lichtenbelt goes on to say: "When practicing the Wim Hof Method with a good dose of common sense (for instance, not hyperventilating before submerging in water) and without excessive expectations: it doesn't hurt to try."
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