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Cryotherapy refers to exposing the body to cold temperatures for a short period of time such as during ice baths and using ice packs. Whole body cryotherapy (WBC) means your entire body is exposed to subzero temperatures in the form of liquid nitrogen. Companies dedicated to providing WBC have getting mainstream coverage for the past of couple of years with reporters, celebrities and professional athletes touting its benefits.
Last year, I paid a visit to KryoLife, a company that provides whole body cryotherapy in a New York City studio, to check out the phenomenon. I walked into a tall metal chamber wearing underwear, a robe, and booties, the door was closed, and freezing cold air filled the tight space in the chamber. I stayed in the chamber for 3 minutes and temperatures reach -292° in this chamber. I did this treatment at night, after a day’s work, and my legs felt lighter and I felt a sense of refreshment.
After hearing more about whole body cryotherapy this year, I took a trip to Elite Cryotherapy in New Jersey for my second-ever treatment. At this facility, the temperature drops to -280° and I wasn’t required to wear a robe over underwear, which may have accentuated the effect. This time around, I know that the cold feeling in my legs did not subside for at least 20-30 minutes and that I had energy that lasted the entire day.
So, how does the machine work and what does it do to your body?
“Liquid Nitrogen gets released every 8-10 seconds through the control system operated by a printed circuit board,” says Salvatore Buscema, Owner of Elite Cryotherapy, which also has two locations in Texas. “Our customers have reported benefits as follows: feeling loose, more flexible, sleeping better, higher performing workouts, alleviating joint pain/stiffness, overall body feeling, and faster recovery.”
The authors of a 2014 Frontiers in Physiology editorial cite four studies on the effects of WBC on the recovery from muscle damage, claiming “WBC may decrease symptoms related to exercise induced muscle damage produced by mechanical stress if immediately applied after exercise.” In a nutshell, muscle damage occurs after sarcomeres, the most basic unit of a muscle, are “popped” after eccentric contraction. Then, white blood cells or leukocytes, are moved to the damaged muscle tissue via soluble intercellar adhesion molecule 1 (aICAM-1). This starts a chemical process that leads to amplified muscle damage.
The authors hypothesize that the thermoregulatory response, which is the body increasing blood flow and warming itself up afterwards, may help recovery from exercise by decreasing the amount of sICAM-1 in the body. Basically, WBC allows for fewer white blood cells to enter damaged muscle tissue, resulting in less inflammation and other post-workout effects.
“WBC assists with all workout regimens, anytime an individual is putting their body through intense workouts with strain and exertion of any kind,” Buscmea says. “We have seen everyone from NFL, MLB, NBA, UFC/MMA, Boxing, High School, Collegiate, and former athletes that have competed at different levels still staying active and in shape at our facility.”
As for long term effects, a 2013 Psychology, Health and Medicine study saw 55 male and female subjects with either spinal pain or peripheral joint disease go through 10 WBC sessions. The end result was improved mental health including enchanced mood and well being. The worse the mental state of the patients prior to WBC, the stronger the effect was suggesting WBC is potent. WBC is making its way into professional athletes’ territory and the Miami Marlins recently added WBC as a recovery option for its players. The universal consensus for this trend: It’s really cold!