Cold therapy brings opportunities for community, wellness.
As cold winds roll in, freezing the lakes of Minnesota, a beloved tradition returns—the polar plunge. And while some of us shiver at the notion, there are others in our community who embrace the cold, so much so that it’s become a lifestyle.
You can count Deephaven native Brian Mahoney among those ranks. Since moving back to Minnesota from New York during COVID-19, Mahoney has taken to visiting ice baths and saunas up to five or seven times a week. “I like the contrast of the hot and cold. You sort of go from one extreme to another, and for me, mentally, if you can conquer that … you feel like you can conquer anything,” he says.
Throughout the year, Mahoney is a member at Embrace North, a sauna and cold therapy company that is spreading this wellness trend across the Metro. Founded by Ironman triathlete and personal trainer Luis Leonardo, Embrace North has garnered nearly 500 members since its launch in Linden Hills in June 2021. Its mission to make people feel more alive has resonated with area residents looking to push the limits of their bodies and minds in a safe and friendly environment.
“There’s this mental resilience side, and then there’s the physical recovery side, and we’re pairing both of these two things together to make humans more optimal and recover faster, heal better and just live a better overall lifestyle,” says Harrison Klein, Embrace North’s
co-partner and breathing specialist.
On a wellness level, the initial shock of entering the water is just the tip of the iceberg. Regular ice bathers report improved heart health and mental fitness alongside better overall happiness and energy. It’s about longevity and breathing, practice and ritual. Proponents of this modality stand by it wholeheartedly, and some skeptics will find themselves hooked after their first experience. “There’s not one person that doesn’t come back here,” Klein says about Embrace North. “The best part is everybody leaves here with a smile. I’ve never seen anybody leave here not happy.”
When Mahoney attended his first Embrace North meetup at Cedar Lake in Minneapolis in February 2020, he realized the depth of his companions’ passion for the ice. “They were in there for like 20 minutes, and I was in there, too. I didn’t want to be the first one to get out,” he says. “That was my first exposure into it.”
Cold therapy is a wellness trend that has garnered a large interest in the fields of research and media, and for good reason. When one dips into an ice bath, there is a plethora of systems impacted, including the brain and sympathetic nervous system. As the fight-or-flight response is triggered by the cold water, so too is the brain’s alertness and ability to concentrate, Klein explains, especially as one engages in breathing protocols and works against instincts to slow the heart rate. “You’re trying to stay calm in that response with your breath and your mindset,” he says, adding that this controlled situation can eventually help to rewire how the brain handles stressful situations.
“A lot of us in society today are very stressed out, so we’re putting ourselves into these intentional controlled stressful situations to adapt to it and become more resilient,” Klein says. “… When stress hits us outside of this environment [the cold or the heat], we react to it differently and, you know, we respond to it with better decision making.”
For Mahoney, cold therapy is a way for him to slow down and tune into his body. “Time sort of stops in the ice bath … I tend to kind of live a faster lifestyle, so having that outlet is a really nice sort of contrast for me, and it gives me time to reflect,” he says.
To reap the most benefits from cold-water immersion, the goal is to be submerged for three to five minutes in 40-degree (or cooler) water. And while some extremists may stay in for 10 minutes or longer, it’s at the three-minute mark when Klein says one fully experiences the benefits of cold thermogenesis, a bodily response to cold exposure. Thermogenesis is the natural way our bodies regulate core temperature, but the process is amplified in cold temperatures and results in a rapid release of hormones, increased metabolism and cardiovascular circulation. “The beauty is that it takes about three minutes in the cold water, and that is going to be the hardest three minutes of your day,” Klein says.
Take it Slow
Interested in taking a dip into cold therapy? Klein suggests ending your morning shower with cold water for boosted energy and mood. “At home, the first thing you can do is the cold shower for sure,” he says.
While your first instinct may be otherwise, introducing an intentional nasal breathing protocol can help to maximize results. “For first timers and for simplicity, it’s really just slow, deep breathing … see if you can do five slow, deep breaths at the end of your shower just for 15 to 30 seconds, and then each day, you just build on that.”
A cold shower is a great entry point to cold therapy. If you get hooked this winter, step up your showers by introducing cycles of 30 seconds of cold water between hot water, or bring a friend out to a local lake for cold therapy company.
Eighteen months after its launch, the Embrace North team has created the very community it sought. “Being in the controlled stressor in a social setting allows you to kind of go an extra mile or push yourself a little bit farther,” Klein says. “Then after it, you’re full of dopamine or noradrenaline, and you’re smiling and laughing and hi-fiving and that’s where the bond happens.”
Convincing people to join in hasn’t been difficult. Embrace North offers members access to saunas, ice baths, winter retreats and a gym with focused classes and trainers. But it’s selling more than that—it’s a growing subculture based on inclusivity and personal growth. “A lot of us aren’t as connected with ourselves right now. We get distracted by technology and what other people are thinking about us, but when you’re doing these kind of things … I mean cold therapy, you don’t care about what other people are thinking at all,” Klein says. “It’s just a way to disconnect from society, reconnect with yourself and feel a little bit more human and a little bit more alive.”
Embrace North isn’t the only local spot to try cold therapy. Across the Metro, individuals and businesses are using new and old methods to welcome the cold—in very different ways, large and small. Halo Cryotherapy in Minnetonka offers whole body and local cryotherapy and cryofacials. The Face Foundrié has a Cryo Queen facial that uses cryotherapy to tighten, firm and lift the skin.
Getting the benefits of cold therapy can be as simple as a cold shower or taking a dip in a nearby lake. Though Mahoney spends much of his time traveling, he hopes to keep his Lake Minnetonka ice pool open all winter long. “I would miss it,” he says. “It’s that magical of an experience.”
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