Leaderboard Banner

Taking Wellness to the Extremes

by Jeremy McCarthy

There’s no limit to the lengths some people will go to build a better version of themselves: ultra fitness challenges, arctic plunges, fasting for days, or long-term calorie restriction. Our spa columnist, the Group Director of Spa & Wellness at Mandarin Oriental, where he has worked for over 9 years, offers his perspective.

When I was younger, wellness was pretty simple. You were supposed to eat a healthy diet, get some exercise (usually jogging), and try not to kill yourself with something stupid like cigarettes. But as wellness has evolved, it is getting more and more extreme. Diets have become fasting: It’s no longer enough to just cut back on unhealthy foods, we must experience total starvation for at least 16 hours a day. Hydrotherapy has been taken over by extreme hot or cold immersion: It’s not good enough to relax in a Jacuzzi at the spa, we have to melt our skin off in an extreme sauna ritual or freeze our bits off in an arctic pond under a glacier waterfall. And about a decade ago, exercise became “high-intensity training.” In my day, you could get good wellness street cred from running in a 5K race. Today, don’t even mention your weekend run if you weren’t crawling under electrified barbed wire, rappelling over an alligator infested swamp, or escaping from a horde of zombies.

So why is wellness getting so extreme? Proponents of these methods point to the process of “autophagy.” Autophagy, which derives from Greek roots meaning “self-devouring,” describes the body’s ability to break down and recycle cellular components. Basically, when the body is exposed to extreme conditions, the core systems of the body focus their efforts on survival, diverting energy away from maintaining cells. The thinking goes: The weakest cells die off, their elements are recycled, and the overall system becomes stronger.

This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our bodies were not designed for the food-abundant, climate-controlled comfort of modern life. We were designed to experience bouts of hunger and extreme shifts of temperature and conditions, and to practice regular bouts of high-intensity exercise as we pursue prey, avoid predators, or clash with enemy tribes. Over millennia, our bodies have adapted to thrive in response to these challenges. Today, we are often surprised to find that shocking the system in extreme ways can actually make us feel pretty good.

If you are in good health and would like to experience extreme wellness, here are a few things to consider:

1. Try intermittent fasting. The most popular routine seems to be the 16/8 fasting method. You fast for 16 hours (from around 8 p.m. until noon) and then eat all of your meals within an eight-hour window (from noon to 8 p.m.) This means every day your body experiences hunger, but because you are still eating normally at least two meals a day, it is actually quite sustainable. 

2. End your morning shower with a cold water immersion. Take that handle and crank it all the way over to “C” for a few minutes. Your mind and your body will both scream at you to either jump out of the shower or to get that knob back into the red. Your job is to stay in the cold for longer than you think you should and take comfort in the fact that the distress that you feel in those few minutes is exactly the wellness kick in the pants you need. You will feel much better for the rest of the day.

3. Exercise hard. At least some of your exercise should be intense. And this kind of intensity is hard to create for yourself. It is better to have a coach, or a sports team, or a workout partner who puts pressure on you to go beyond your limits.

I have incorporated all three of these practices into my regular routine, and feel a big difference.

After my first year of practicing intermittent fasting, I felt fitter, leaner and sharper mentally. My wife asked me, “how long will you keep doing this for?” I replied, “from now on.” It has become the new normal for me.

I have found the best benefits of a cold immersion really come from doing a proper cold plunge or an ice bath. When I am visiting one of our spas that has these features, I always go in for a minute or two. It is challenging when you do it, but the effects afterward are quite remarkable. The daily cold-water shower is a bit of a shortcut. If I’m honest, this probably isn’t extreme enough to induce the autophagy effect I describe above, it’s just easier to incorporate into a busy lifestyle. For me, the biggest benefit of the cold shower habit is as a willpower exercise. When I crank the shower knob to full cold, I am training my brain to do the hard things. Success in wellness (and in other parts of life) comes down to our ability to make the right decisions based on our long-term goals—despite the short-term desire to do something else. Every time I step into a cold shower, I’m training my brain to override my short-term desires and make better long-term decisions.

And for exercise, I’m not one of these guys you will see going for a leisurely stroll on a treadmill while watching Game of Thrones. When I go to the gym, it’s to push myself to do more than I think I can. And in Hong Kong I have my “movement tribe.” The work is always more intense when there are other people training alongside you.

If you’re up to the challenge, see where you can push the limits and experience the benefits of extreme wellness.

If these activities are too extreme for you, don’t feel bad. The sheer volume of wellness advice has also expanded dramatically in recent decades, and we can’t possibly do it all. Real wellness is about finding the practices, rituals, and habits that you find beneficial, that work with your lifestyle, and that you can commit to for an extended period of time. If you’re not into the extreme end of the spectrum (yet), just start where you are and do what you can. Barbed wire and zombies are optional.

You may also like