This breathing method draws on the teachings of Wim Hof, an athlete and motivational speaker who believes that cold exposure can improve health. The method combines periods of hyperventilation with breath-holding.
The method also involves cold exposure in the form of ice baths or very cold showers.
Hof views his method as a meditative approach to improving health and well-being. His followers claim that hyperventilation leads to increased levels of oxygen in the blood, enabling a person to hold their breath for longer. However, the research to date has not proven this to be true.
Read on to learn more about the Wim Hof Method, including how it works and the benefits and risks.
The Wim Hof Method has three pillars:
- Breathing exercises: Users start with simple deep breathing exercises and brief breath-holds. The method graduates to periods of hyperventilation followed by longer periods of breath-holding.
- Cold exposure: The method also involves cold exposure, first through cold showers and eventually graduating to ice baths. Practitioners use breathing techniques to help them better tolerate the cold.
- Commitment: Mastering the other two pillars requires a significant amount of patience and dedication.
A handful of studies have assessed the Wim Hof breathing method. These studies attempted to measure the method’s ability to enhance specific capacities, with the results varying.
Most of the studies have been very small, meaning that they cannot provide conclusive data.
In a 2021 study, researchers observed 15 amateur sprinters. They asked the participants to perform a Wim Hof session before running and compared their performance with that of a control group.
They found that the breathing method had the following effects:
- inducing respiratory acidosis, a condition in which the blood contains too much carbon dioxide
- countering the diving response, which usually causes the constriction of blood vessels, increased blood pressure, and a slower heart rate
- releasing concentrated red blood cells into the bloodstream, which could theoretically improve athletic performance
Most studies have agreed that the method does not improve athletic performance, at least over the short term.
A 2022 study involving adult males who tried the method, including cold exposure, found that the method might enhance the presence of anti-inflammatory chemicals. This may potentially enable the body to reduce or control inflammation.
The Wim Hof Method is a type of meditation. In general, meditation may reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
On his website, Hof claims that his method offers a range of benefits, including an accumulation of brown fat, fat loss, and reduced inflammation. His most devoted followers claim that the method is life changing.
However, because research into the method is relatively limited, scientists cannot validate these claims.
A small 2018 study interviewed 16 people about their experiences with the method. They reported subjective benefits such as:
- improved mood
- reduction in anxiety
- greater feelings of wellness
- a deeper connection to oneself
- better immunity
- less physical stress and tension
Research on hyperventilation generally — not the Wim Hof Method specifically — suggests that rapid breathing may relax the brain and decrease elevated pressure in the skull. Anecdotally, users report greater feelings of well-being, the ability to hold their breath for very long periods, and a reduction in depression and anxiety.
Several professional athletes who have adopted the method claim that it has improved their performance.
The foundation of the Wim Hof Method is its breathing technique. According to Hof, beginners should start as follows:
- Find a comfortable position.
- Breathe in deeply through the nose and into the belly.
- Exhale, then immediately breathe in again.
- Take 30–40 such breaths.
- Hold the breath until getting the urge to breathe again.
- Inhale deeply and hold for 15 seconds.
- Repeat 4–5 times.
Hof says that individuals should perform the practice daily.
As a person becomes more accustomed to the method, their initial 30–40 breaths should come closer together so that they are hyperventilating while still breathing as deeply as possible.
Intermediate practitioners may begin to use the method while taking a cold shower.
As a person becomes even more comfortable with the method, they may take ice baths while performing the breathing exercises. Hof argues that a number of specific, teachable advanced techniques may help a person tolerate extremely cold temperatures or improve their athletic performance.
Hof cautions that users may feel dizzy, tingly, or lightheaded when hyperventilating.
Hyperventilation poses some health risks, such as:
- decreasing blood flow to the brain, thereby depriving it of oxygen
- causing fainting because of a lack of blood flow to the brain
- having a harmful effect on the brain in people with a traumatic brain injury
People who prolong the breath-holding portion of the technique may also deprive their brain of oxygen, increasing the risk of fainting or hypoxic brain injury.
It is important to note that this method is not safe to do in the water or in any context where the loss of consciousness could be dangerous. This includes cold showers when a person is alone and could fall.
Some people who practice the Wim Hof Method report having difficulty sleeping. In people prone to anxiety, the hyperventilation may also intensify feelings of anxiety or even trigger a panic attack.
The Wim Hof Method is an alternative health practice and meditation style. It has rapidly gained popularity in the alternative health community, as well as among some health and wellness advocates.
As with most forms of meditation, the Wim Hof Method may offer some health benefits. However, hyperventilation is not safe for everyone, and people with a history of fainting should consult a healthcare professional before trying this method.