Wim Hof: the ‘Iceman’ touting cold exposure and conscious breathing

The sexagenarian water fanatic stars in new BBC reality show

Wim Hof stands in crowd of swimmers
Wim Hof has set more than 20 Guinness World Records for extreme challenges
(Image credit: Natali Alba / Alamy Stock Photo)

Cold water fanatic Wim Hof is marking his 63rd birthday today by spending 63 minutes in icy water.

“I’ll put it on Instagram to show that the older you get, the stronger you get,” the extreme athlete and motivational speaker told The Observer earlier this month.

Hof’s 2.5m Instagram followers and other fans can also watch the so-called Iceman in action on BBC One’s new series Freeze The Fear. Hosted by Holly Willoughby and Lee Mack, the reality show follows eight celebrities who join the Dutchman to take on a series of chilly challenges.

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Not everyone is impressed by their antics, with the i news site’s Ed Power describing the show as more “belly flop” than “invigorating dip”. However, Hof told The Observer that “I don’t care about being a star, but the BBC endorsing it pleases me to the bottom of my heart”.

“It’s the greatest shop window if you’re a man on a mission, which I am,” he added.

The Wim Hof Method

Hof’s obsession with freezing temperatures began at the age of 17. “I was quite a thinker, a philosopher, but one day I felt attracted to the freezing water,” he told The Observer. “I jumped into a canal in Amsterdam and thought: ‘This is it!’ That deep connection I felt that day was the starting point.”

He returned the next day, and the next, until cold plunges were part of his daily life. And he also developed a unique breathing technique. The Wim Hof Method is based on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tummo meditation, “but features none of its spiritual trappings”, said Rolling Stone.

Wim Hof’s website says the method “is a way to keep your body and mind in its optimal natural state”. It sounds “kind of nutty”, but scientific research has backed up his theory, said Rolling Stone.

A 2011 study by Radboud University’s Nijmegen Medical Centre concluded that Hof really could “influence his nervous systems and immune response through concentration and meditation”. Although these results were only proven to “have only been obtained in a single individual”, the researchers said, the results were “remarkable”.

A 2014 study recorded the same response in a small group of people who followed Hof’s methods.

The “sub-zero superman” is “no anomaly of nature”, said The Telegraph. Hof has a “more sedentary” twin brother, but while the pair have identical genetics, the Iceman credits “a combination of frequent cold exposure, focused breathing techniques and meditation” for his own physical feats.

Man behind the method

Hof has told how his love of cold water brought him “back to life” following the suicide of his first wife, Olaya, in 1995.

“The children made me survive”, he told The Sun, but the cold “healed me”. Plunging into cold water “gave my broken heart a chance to rest, restore, and rehabilitate”.

Olaya’s death also made Hof want to spread the word about his method. He once told an interviewer that he realised “I can bring people to tranquillity” and that “my method could give them back control”.

Hof has made a determined effort to enlist the help of celebrities to “bang around the world singing the praises” of his eponymous breathing technique, said Rolling Stone. He’s been “a firm favourite with the celebrity set for years”, according to The Sun.

Hof told The Observer that he was “most welcome” at the homes of A-listers including David Beckham and Oprah Winfrey. As the i news site’s Power noted, he also appeared on Gwyneth Paltrow’s “much-mocked” Netflix series The Goop Lab in 2020.

The extreme athlete has achieved a long list of Guinness World Records too. His website lists 21, including running a half marathon barefoot in the Arctic circle, swimming under ice for 66 metres, and hanging by one finger at an altitude of 2,000 meters.

‘Bloody scary’

Hof’s “particular perky workouts” have gained a global following and bestowed him with “something of a messianic aura”, said The Telegraph.

Even so, he told The Observer that swimming under ice “is bloody scary”.

“It’s a different world.The cold exerts control over your body, then you must overcome your claustrophobia as well.” But, he added, “we have a lot of fun as well”.

His love of the cold is shared by his family. Hof has six children, and told the newspaper that he’s “working” on having another.

“A super cold shower is apparently the way to start the day in the Hof household,” said the Daily Mail.

“It was his eldest son, Enahm, who encouraged Wim to pursue his hobby as a business,” the paper reported. And “one daughter has also trained in his methods, as has his second wife, the mother of his youngest child, a four-year-old son”.

According to Hof, his youngest has been “walking over the ice” with him barefoot since the age of one.

And after recently welcoming his first grandchild, a boy named Kai, the family tradition looks set to continue for generations to come.

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