So the heatwave in the UK continues (I can hear our Australian friends chuckling about our ‘searing’ 30 degree heat!) and while I don’t want to complain about the fab weather, I’m feeling a little bit uncomfortable and hot under the collar.
So I thought I’d take the temperature down a bit – well quite a bit actually. This post is about a spa trip to Austria, where I was effectively locked in a freezer, a really, really cold freezer – all for the benefit of my good health of course….
Step into the frozen world of whole body cryotherapy, a treatment that involves exposing the body to extreme cold temperatures (we’re talking minus 110 degrees Celsius) for up to three minutes at a time. It’s said to stimulate the nervous system via the skin receptors to deliver a huge boost of endorphins (your body’s natural pain killers) and help all manner of ailments. I first experienced it during a trip to the Alpen Hotel in the beautiful resort of Seefeld in Tyrol, western Austria.
The treatment is not for the faint-hearted. I find myself at the hotel’s spa, about to enter what is basically a big freezer with three interlinked chambers. I’m wearing my trainers and socks, a swimsuit, white gloves, a headband to cover my ears and the type of paper face mask it’s advisable to wear if you’re sanding your floorboards. If I wasn’t so scared I’d feel rather like a fool.
The big freeze
The protocol is to step into the first room (a positively balmy –10 degrees) and briefly acclimatise to the cold, before quickly moving to the middle room (–60 degrees, getting nippy) for a minute or so before bracing yourself and going for the biggie – the final room at a teeth-rattling -110. Each chamber has a glass window onto the outside world, so it’s not as claustrophobic as you might think – and more importantly the therapist on the outside can monitor me closely and get me out of there if I decide to have an ice-induced panic attack.
The first two chambers are surprisingly bearable, but stepping into the third room I feel an immediate icy assault on my body. I remember the therapist’s instructions to breathe very slowly through the mask, in short breaths so as not to fill my lungs with a sudden sharp blast of freezing air. I’m encouraged by the therapist to move about, stamp my feet and give her the occasional thumbs up to let her know I’m OK. Strangely, because the air is so dry, I don’t shiver at all, but I’m covered in goose bumps and after a minute or so my skin starts to prickle sharply all over. After a three-minute countdown I get the signal from the therapist to get the heck out of there. If I were to stay for 10 minutes I’d be – how should I put this – well, dead.
It’s a relief to step out into the warm air of the spa room and straight into a white fluffy robe. My immediate physical feeling is one of intense exhilaration – not merely because I’ve survived – but because my nervous system has been stimulated to an extreme degree. I feel as light as air and really happy as the endorphins do their work. The extreme cold diverted blood to my vital organs, but stepping back into a normal temperature makes my capillaries re-dilate and sends a fast flow of oxygenated blood through my whole body. After the session, I’m encouraged to lie down in the relaxation area, take it easy for a couple of hours (I can do that!) and drink lots of water.
After the initial burst of energy, what follows is a feeling of deep calm and relaxation – it’s as if I’ve just had a wonderful, luxurious hour-long massage and not three minutes in the deep freeze. From that point of view – it’s a pretty time efficient way to increase wellness.
The recommendation at the Alpen Hotel is to have a cryotherapy session twice a day for the length of your stay. The hotel attracts many top level sports people – from champion skiers to international football and rugby players – who use cryotherapy to help heal more quickly from injuries. People suffering from longer term chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia find they can significantly reduce their pain in a period of two to three weeks.
The therapy – which originated in Japan in the 1970s – is also said to offer significant psychological benefits – so if you suffer from depression, insomnia or are just really stressed out, then cold therapy can help.
There are also many other wonderful spa and beauty treatments available at this Alpine wellness hotel. The original building is a traditional wooden-clad Tyrolean chalet, but six years ago (while under the ownership of a fifth generation of family hoteliers) it underwent a major expansion to create a large, modern spa and 71 new, minimalist designed hotel rooms which were integrated with the more traditional parts.
Around the light-filled spa there are many picture windows offering expansive views over Seefeld. In late spring, summer and early autumn the hotel is surrounded by lush green meadows and Alpine flowers, and it’s a great place to go walking, or Nordic walking. In winter, the small village becomes a mecca for cross-country skiers.
The hotel has recently changed ownership, and changed its name from AlpenMedHotel Lamm to The Alpen Hotel. A 7-night ‘Icelab -110 C package’ starts at 811 euros per person.
If you want to try whole body cryotherapy in the UK, the only spa currently offering it is Champneys in Tring, Hertfordshire, where Jessica Ennis is reported to have tried it out for an ankle injury. Sessions cost from £55.
In Ireland, it’s on offer at the hotel and spa resort, Whites of Wexford.
Some claimed benefits of whole body cryotherapy
Relief from pain, chronic pain and degenerative conditions like MS
Help with sleep disorders
Improvement of psychological mood and depression
Relief from symptoms of fatigue and stress
Faster recovery from sports injuries (muscle and joint trauma) and acceleration of muscle recovery form exercise
Stimulation of collagen in the skin
Improvement of skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
Regulation of hormonal activity
Boosts metabolic rate and helps the body release toxins