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I tried cold water exposure therapy for the first time – and this is what happened

My honest thoughts after attending a wellness retreat at Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa

Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa
Francesca Shillcock
Senior Features Writer
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Upon hearing the words "wellness retreat", you'd be forgiven for thinking it consists of a weekend doing little other than basking in sunshine and lounging by a pool for hours on end. The wellness retreat I took part in, thanks to Pennyhill Park and Oyogo's 'Move, Recover, Restore' programme, did look slightly different, but it was certainly no less enjoyable.

Instead, what I signed up for was a weekend of cold water therapy in the form of taking multiple ice baths. I realise this might not sound like everyone's idea of relaxation. However, engaging in activities that are known to be great for our health and well-being sounded like a weekend I could get on board with. I'd read cold water therapy was great before but wasn't brave enough to try it until now. Here are my honest thoughts and results, as well as some expert commentary on the benefits.

Pennyhill Park & Spa© Angela Ward Brown
Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa

What is cold water therapy?

Cold water therapy consists of, quite simply, exposing your body to (very) cold water, specifically around the 15-degree Celsius mark or less. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be a practical challenge. It's not every day that we can lap up a wellness retreat – simply turning down the heat faucet in your shower is enough. Studies have shown that having a cold shower – immersing your head underneath – can improve mood and productivity and boost our immune system. But more on that later.

If you have a gym membership, see if they have an outside pool and brave it in winter months. There are also many relatively inexpensive inflatable ice baths you can fill with water and ice straight from your freezer. Granted, you'll probably need a garden to do it, but if you have access to outside space, it's a brilliant way of incorporating cold water therapy into your at-home wellness regime.

Be aware, if you have a heart condition, it's a good idea to chat to your GP first.

This ice bath was approximately 4 degrees Celcius© Francesca Shillcock
This ice bath was approximately 4 degrees Celcius

What do the experts say?

Now for the science. When I went along to the retreat, I was told that I'd in fact be doing hot-and-cold therapy, also known as contrast therapy, where I'd be exposed to the cold and then immediately to heat. Admittedly, I was more looking forward to the warmer end of the bargain and enjoying a few solid minutes in the sauna, but as I learned more about why cold exposure is great for our health, the more determined I was to do it.

David Jackson, a former professional rugby player and sports performance and breathwork coach, was there to guide us on our breathing. David told HELLO!: "Breathing is more than just a great tool for awareness of your nervous system, it also has the power to change and control your nervous system and stress response.

"Stress typically increases our breathing rate, whether it's emotional stress or physical stress from exercise. Learning to control and slow our breathing helps us manage this stress response." 

This was especially important to consider when taking the plunge into the ice. Immediately, your body goes into 'cold water shock', and our instinctive reaction is to take shallow breaths through our mouths, but this does nothing for our stress response. Instead, we were encouraged to "keep it nasal", as David's motto goes.

"Nasal breathing also reduces the moisture lost through exhaling," David added. "If you can be more efficient with your breathing, it improves your nervous system and therefore your resilience to stress."

Pennyhill Park also have an outside pool which is 15 degrees Celsius - great for a cold water dip© Francesca Shillcock
Pennyhill Park also have an outside pool which is 15 degrees Celsius - great for a cold water dip

Also taking us through the exercises was retired triple Olympic swimmer and silver medallist Keri-anne Payne, who explained more benefits of contrast therapy. "The benefits are huge on not only your body but also your brain," she told HELLO!. The cold really helps build resilience, while the heat helps your body to detox. [It also has] a great effect on improving circulation."

Keri-anne added: "It helps you mentally because it takes a huge amount of determination to do it. By actively doing something outside your comfort zone you work on your inner resilience that, added to the breathing, is the cure to help reduce anxiety and stress."

In a nutshell, by deliberately exposing your body to stress like ice-cold water, and controlling your breathing to guide you through it, the idea is that when you're exposed to stress, either physically or mentally, in almost any other context, your body is better equipped to cope.

My honest results on trying out cold water therapy

What surprised me the most was that, after completing the first round of ice-bath-sauna routine, I was extremely keen to do it again. I felt like I'd completed a challenge and for that, I gave myself a mental pat on the back.

Keri-anne told us that when your body passes through the shock of the ice and your breathing is under control, you get a "high", and this is your indicator to jump out and really feel the effects of the rush. I felt this in abundance, it really does make you feel incredible.

I took an ice bath at Pennyhill Park's wellness retreat and loved it© Francesca Shillcock
I took an ice bath at Pennyhill Park's wellness retreat and loved it

As well as mentally, I felt great physically. The first plunge instantly took my breath away and I was a little slower than the pros at getting my nasal breathing under control. But by the time I'd hopped out of the ice and gone into the heat, I felt rejuvenated. Not only that, but I could tell it was helping my circulation. I felt less "puffy" and noticed this in my appearance, such as my feet and hands. There's no doubt about it, when you see physical results, you're more inclined to continue. By the time I'd done my third ice bath of the weekend, I was far better at handling the shock and fallen a bit in love with cold water therapy.

I don't have a gym membership and I live in a flat that won't accommodate an ice bath, so my long-term routine of cold water therapy requires me to stick to my humble shower. Nonetheless, incorporating it into my routine knowing it's benefitting my health feels fantastic. But more importantly for me, learning how to control my breathing and use it as a tool, particularly when controlling anxiety, is invaluable.

Why Pennyhill Park Hotel was the perfect choice for my wellness retreat

The 'Move, Recover, Restore' retreat took place at the stunning Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa and it felt like a real treat. The rooms were stunning. I had two, yes two, bathtubs in the bathroom. Necessary? Not really, considering I was flying solo, but it felt totally glamorous, nonetheless.

The grounds of the hotel are situated on 120 acres of parkland in the heart of leafy Surrey and the surroundings – consisting of woodland parks and gorgeous tree-lined hills – was the perfect backdrop for a weekend of putting mind, body and soul first.

And the spa was no less impressive. As the website states: "Our award-winning spa is vast and has the best of the best for you to explore: with over 20 spa experiences, innovative treatments and all the little luxuries perfect for escaping the stresses of normal life."

There's so much on offer and being there will make you feel like you're seriously elevating your wellness and luxury game. 

Pennyhill Park Hotel is stunning© Francesca Shillcock
Pennyhill Park Hotel is stunning

More about wellness retreats

But it's not only Pennyhill Park that offers wellness retreats. South Lodge Country House Spa and Hotel in West Sussex has equally gorgeous surroundings of countryside and nature, making it the perfect place to immerse yourself in a wellness experience.

This spring, they're offering their 'Nature Immersion Spa Experience', a one-day treat which harnesses the power of Shinrin-Yoku, the Japanese awareness meditation of forest bathing, proven to be a profound antidote to anxiety, depression, fear and tension.

Move, Recover, Restore at Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa
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"Led by Helena Skoog, who has lived off-grid for five years amongst ancient forestry, guests will embark on a simple nature walk, whereby the forest languages of renewal, growth and change will become experiential second nature. Guests will also experience a wellbeing session of Qigong and breath work, to balance parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, calming the mind and reducing the stress of everyday life." Find out more, here.

Move, Recover, Restore at Pennyhill Park Hotel & Spa. From £629 if you're coming along solo, or £979 for two when sharing a room. Includes all expert sessions and Q&A talk, luxury overnight accommodation, breakfast, lunch on both days and full spa access.

Oyogo is heading back to Pennyhill Park later this year. Find out more about dates and information on the wellness retreat, here.  

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