What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength, by Scott Harney

Scott Harney is an investigative journalist with two other books under his belt before this one. He says that after first seeing information about a Dutch health guru who encouraged people to stand nearly naked in the snow he thought it would be worth looking into and possibly exposing. Harney was already working on his book A Death on Diamond Mountain (also known as The Enlightenment Trap) about the dehydration death of a 38 year-old follower of an Arizona enlightenment instructor. He thought these methods had the potential to also hurt people.

As he participated in the Wim Hof program he changed his mind. Hof teaches a combination of cold exposure, meditation, and breathing exercises that he claims will strengthen the body, increase control of the immune system, and help lose weight. The underlying notion is similar to paleo-diet devotees: The human body evolved to live in a largely outdoor environment and is built to adjust to extremes of weather. They note that the Pilgrims at Plymouth were met in winter by natives wearing not much more than loincloths.

Harney describes the increasing times of cold exposure, standing barefoot in the snow in Poland for five minutes at first and then extending that out. He also goes into detail about the breathing techniques taught by Hof, which is almost of a piece with the meditation techniques. His time with Hof even has him joining a group in an attempt to climb Kilimanjaro in record time without breathing devices.

Based on his own physical and mental changes Harney became a supporter of Hof, though even he tends to cringe when Hof wanders into almost mystical territories. In the book he brings as much science to bear on the techniques as he can. There are discussions on  the body’s ability to develop increased stores of “brown fat” that help generate heat and burn the insulating fat. There are also considerations of the cold acting almost like calisthenics for the circulatory system and of the body’s need to clear carbon dioxide so that some exercises are attempted after the lungs have been emptied.

For those not having the benefits of nearby snow and a sauna, Harney says that some of the benefits can be had by cold morning showers, dropping the thermostat to 62F, going barefoot as much as possible, and just generally becoming more a part of the world on the other side of your front door.

While I like to think of my body as something of a fun laboratory for various things, even the thought of jumping into a cold shower first thing in the morning is enough to make my kidneys tuck in deeper and reach for a blanket. Taking extended cold baths and some of the other off-season suggestions are equally unappealing. On the other hand, I had already started keeping my house temperature lower just to burn more calories when doing sedentary work or reading.

Google Wim Hof’s name and his website shows up at or near the top where you can read more before deciding whether you want to invest in the book. Harney goes beyond Hof to work with other health gurus, including a surfer who works with celebrities and athletes to do breathe conditioning. Even though I may never intentionally stand barefoot in the snow it was an interesting read and Hof is definitely a unique character.