It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie: Strip down to your skivvies and step into an icy chamber cooled with liquid nitrogen, where temperatures plummet to nearly 200 degrees below zero. In just a few minutes, the frigid temps — colder than any part of Antarctica —can supposedly zap inflammation and boost metabolism, giving you a killer endorphin rush in the process.
But whole-body cryotherapy — or “cold therapy” — has actually been around since the late 1970s (the same decade that gave us Alien, the first Star Trek feature film, and Star Wars), when it was introduced as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Since then, localized cold therapy has proven effective for destroying skin lesions (ever had a wart frozen off?) and whole-body cryotherapy has gained popularity among elite athletes as a way to soothe sore muscles (Kobe Bryant and LeBron James swear by it). Marcus Elliot, MD, founder and director of P3, an elite training center and research lab in Santa Barbara, CA explains, “It appears there is a large, whole-body decrease in inflammation. This can improve recovery post-training [and] in some cases reduce chronic pain. The mechanism isn’t really well worked out, but it appears to reduce the levels of at least two pro-inflammatory chemical intermediates.”
Now, devotees claim that cryotherapy can also speed up weight loss. The theory is that your body goes into survival mode when exposed to the brutal cold; this supercharges your metabolic rate and torches about 800 calories in the process. Cryo spas claim this type of therapy can also boost energy, banish stress, improve sleep, and alleviate skin conditions like psoriasis. Not bad for a three-minute spa treatment.
If these whole-body benefits are legit, it’s no surprise that cryo spas are suddenly popping up all over the country. But is it too good to be true? The short answer: It’s too soon to tell. “We saw an initial increase in metabolic rate, but no consistent results for lasting weight loss,” says Dr. Alan Christianson, a naturopathic medical doctor (NMD) in Phoenix who has studied cryotherapy.
Dr. Elliott was among the first — possibly the first — to open a cryotherapy chamber on the West Coast after hearing rave reviews from a sports scientist for the San Antonio Spurs, but is cautiously optimistic about the potential weight-loss benefits. “We were one of the earliest adapters, but my interest was from reading the literature on reducing pro-inflammatory components…I was very dubious of the weight loss claims,” he says. “However, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a caloric bump post-cryotherapy. There is definitely a big release of norepinephrine or adrenaline, and subjectively, it feels like you are utilizing more energy.”
One potential snag for long-term weight-loss is the price tag. While a few minutes of extreme shivering might sound a lot easier than an hour-long spin class, treatments typically cost between $50-100 per session, making regular visits difficult for those of us whose paychecks don’t come from the NBA. So even if the calorie-burning claims ultimately prove to be true, it’s just like any weight-loss effort — without repetition, you won’t see results. And repetition can get costly.
Still, if you’re intrigued by the idea of becoming a human popsicle, the procedure is relatively safe to try. Unlike the bone-chilling effects of an ice bath, the lack of moisture in a cryo chamber keeps the cold air from penetrating your skin by more than a half-millimeter. “When the treatment is done per guidelines, there are no substantial risks,” Dr. Christianson says. (Following the rules is crucial, though; track star Justin Gatlin reportedly got frostbite after wearing damp socks into a cryo chamber.)
So what is cryotherapy actually good for? The studies are few and far between, and mostly focus on its effectiveness for pain relief. “It can be helpful for inflammation and in speeding recovery from rigorous physical training,” says Dr. Christianson. Even if it’s not a magical weight-loss chamber, cryotherapy may help you recover more quickly and get back into your regular fitness regimen. And in the long run, that might help you see faster results.