In the name of lifestyle journalism and science, I put myself in a chamber and got blasted with liquid nitrogen gas at a temperature of -144 C (-227.2 F). That's way colder than the lowest temperature ever recorded on our planet: -94.7C (-135.8F). Supposedly this is really good for you, though I'm skeptical.
What It Is
Whole Body Cryotherapy (WBC) allegedly assists in sports training recovery, decreases inflammation, improves mood, boosts the immune system, burns calories, and even cures depression and hangovers, according to CryoWorld founder Francois, who is not a doctor or physical trainer and previously worked in a trading company before starting what he says is China's first cryotherapy center. The WBC concept was pioneered by Japanese professor Toshima Yamauchi back in the '70s as a treatment for arthritis, then spread to Eastern Europe (Francois said one factory there has a chamber for its hungover workers to use before their shift).
Nowadays, pro athletes like LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather and stars like Daniel Craig and Lindsay Lohan use cryotherapy on the reg. And by the looks of it, some of the athletes at the Crossfit gym at Anken Life that CryoWorld shares a space with are believers as well. Apparently one customer is totally hooked on his new "dope" and does 4.5 minutes of cryotherapy every day.
The notion behind cryotherapy is that when your body gets exposed to extreme cold, your brain goes into panic mode and floods your body with endorphins and anti-inflammatory molecules, and your body draws blood away from your limbs and to your core to protect your vital organs. As the theory goes, drawing blood away from your limbs reduces swelling, and an endorphin rush gives you energy (fact). Research on WBC is extremely limited and inconclusive, and the chambers and treatments are not yet approved by the U.S. FDA.
So...is this shit safe? Well, you do have to sign a three-page waiver. But just to be clear, a three-minute cryotherapy sesh doesn't cause your core body temperature to plummet. We're talking about the surface of your skin. Hypothermia kicks in when your body temperature drops below 95 F (35 C), which might happen if you stayed in the chamber for say…ten or fifteen minutes. Then you're dead. Luckily, this hasn't happened in cryotherapy, and frostbite (which happens when your blood flows away from your extremities to protect your core) is extremely rare. That only happens when people wear wet socks (like sprinter Justin Gatlin), or -- god forbid -- when dudes wear wet boxers.
Again, not much is known. A recent study -- one of just a few on the subject -- concluded that "The lack of evidence on adverse events is important given that the exposure to extreme temperature presents a potential hazard. Further high-quality, well-reported research in this area is required and must provide detailed reporting of adverse events." For more skepticism about cryotherapy, check this New York Times article and this video by the Atlantic.
So you step in this clean little future lab, pay the 350rmb, sign the waiver, then get into the dressing room, where they hook you up with a robe, thermal boots, gloves, and disposable cotton underwear (just in case). Then they cool down the chamber so when you step in, it's already frigid (my "initial burst" was -180 C, or -356 F). Your head stays above the chamber, because breathing nitrogen will cause you to faint. Then you take off your robe and hand it to the technician and stand there nearly naked in the gas.
For the first minute, you're like "damn, this isn't so bad", and after that, you can only think of pushing it to the three-minute count. The last thirty seconds is the hardest -- it's almost unbearable. This must be what it feels like when people start to freeze to death. My legs felt heavy, and my feet felt like they were sweating, though that was probably just my mind playing tricks on me (which happens in extreme temperatures -- many people remove all their clothes in the final stages of hypothermia).
When I stepped out of the booth into the warm room, it felt like a full–on stimulant rush, like I was ready to fight someone. I felt like I could jump through the glass window and into the street (Side note: They don't have privacy glass installed yet, so several uncles stopped, stared, and gave me the thumbs up during my three minutes). My speech was agitated and I had to sit down. My heart was racing (people with heart issues can't do cryotherapy). I didn't really feel like working out, but probably could have had a strong-day at the gym next door. I felt like this for the thirty minutes, then normality flooded back. Who knows if it's related, but I slept like a kitten that night (I hadn't slept much the night before). Side Note: The music could have been better. I don't remember what they were playing, but it should have been Slayer or Children of Bodom.
Is It Worth It?
As a "yeah, I did that", kind of experience, yes and no. Yes, it's rad to say that you survived temperatures similar to the poles of Mars. But who knows what kind of adverse effects this could have, and that would be a really shitty way to die (very unlikely, but still). More importantly, I'm not convinced that this is more effective than what my high-school power training coach Mr. Laing called "Russian Showers" -- ice cold post-workout showers -- or ice baths, both of which are basically free.
Price And Times
Not cheap. One session will set you back 350rmb for three minutes. But they really want to sell people on one-month unlimited passes, which are 3000rmb. They say that people can do the therapy as many times as they want for that month, but then they need to rest for two months, so the body doesn't built up a tolerance. Again, no one who works there is a doctor or a nurse.
Next month in weird science, we snort crushed tiger penis and hit the batting cages! See ya then.