If you’re a fan of superheroes, you have probably heard of Iceman, a Marvel Comic character that has the unique ability to tolerate the cold and turn his body into ice. But you might not have heard of the real-life “Iceman,” Dutch adventurer Wim Hof who is known for his unusual ability to withstand extreme cold.
Hof holds 26 world records, including spending the longest time in an ice bath (1 hour, 13 minutes) and being the only person to climb Mount Everest wearing only boots, shorts and a backpack. Most people who attempt these feats would more than likely fail or even die due to the exposure to extreme cold.
Hof is thought to be able to withstand the cold by using self-taught breathing techniques. The breathing method is a three-stage process consisting of:
- controlled hyperventilation: inhaling fully but not exhaling all the way, also called “power breathing,”
- exhalation: exhaling fully and holding it for a certain amount of time, and
- retention: taking a deep breath and holding it for up to 15 seconds.
Researchers at Wayne State University in Michigan studied Hof’s physiological responses to the cold and compared them to healthy college-age volunteers. The research team used imaging tests to analyze Hof’s body temperature and the activity of his brain and respiratory muscles (some of the muscles involved in breathing). They found that while using his breathing technique, Hof had increased blood flow to his respiratory muscles, which helped warm his blood and stabilize his core body temperature to prevent frostbite. The researchers also found that activity in the areas of the brain that regulate body temperature increased, which boosted his metabolism to produce more body heat.
More research is needed to confirm whether this study was an isolated case or if Hof’s unique breathing techniques consistently help him withstand the cold. However, his method of breathing could be a useful “learned superpower” in many ways. For example, Hof’s breathing technique could potentially be used to rescue people stranded at sea and to help people with several medical conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Kelvyn Van Laarhoven has a bachelor of science degree in exercise science and is currently a graduate student in the department of kinesiology and integrative physiology at Michigan Technological University. His academic interests are in physical therapy, sports medicine and human performance.