When I moved to Manhattan after college, I quickly fell into the habit of going to the Russian and Turkish baths in the East Village. Later, when I was living in Brooklyn, my roommate, recently returned from Moscow, switched the routine to Sandoony Spa, a famous Russian bathhouse. There, in addition to buckets of icy water to dump on your head in the sauna, they offer near-freezing pools in which to submerge once you’ve worked up an incredible sweat. Few things are harder to psyche yourself up for than jumping into cold water, and the lack of proper bathhouses in Paris is still one of the things I miss most about New York. (I have heard that the Old World can be broken into bathing and nonbathing cultures: the Japanese, Russians, Romans, Turks, and Scandinavians were bathers; the French invented perfume.)
Then last spring, I read an op-ed in The New York Times titled “The Benefits of Getting an Icy Start to the Day,” which reminded me that all you really need to get all of the benefits of the Russian bathhouse is a shower. The piece was written by a financial planner from Utah named Carl Richards, who makes the convincing case that, in addition to the health benefits of cold water (it increases blood circulation and releases endorphins among many other things), there is an enormous psychological boost to be had from doing something excruciatingly difficult as each day begins. “The point is that starting your morning by tackling challenges head-on will help encourage similar behavior throughout the day,” writes Richards. “And, it turns out, there’s a wealth of research to back up this idea as well. People who do hard things first tend to procrastinate less and get more done.”
I haven’t ended a shower without cold water since I read that, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s not just about boosting productivity, either, though that is an added bonus. The truth is, most of us aren’t asked to be physically courageous very often, and this is one small exercise in bravery that I can do. Now, that moment at the end of the shower where I cut the hot water and turn the cold full blast has taken on almost spiritual dimensions. It never gets easier, but that’s the point.