Cryotherapy: the ultimate chill-out

Lindsay Lohan loves it. So does soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo in the days leading up to a soccer match. Daniel Craig reportedly did it during the filming of Skyfall. Curiously, Gwyneth Paltrow hasn't done it, but she's reportedly keen.

'It' is cryotherapy, and involves blasting your body with liquid nitrogen cooled to between minus 150 and 200 degrees celsius. Yes, you read that right.

And now, dressed only in my underpants, I'm about to do 'it' at a new cryotherapy centre in Sydney's eastern suburbs, called Cryo. More on how that turned out below;  but first, a little background.

The cold facts

Humans have been using cold to treat injuries and inflammation since the dawn of civilisation. Cryotherapy in its current form didn't emerge until 1978 in Japan, where it was developed as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.

It started attracting public attention in 2000 following the opening of a Polish 'Olympic rehabilitation centre' equipped with a cryotherapy chamber. (The Polish facility was used by a number of well-known sporting teams and individual sportspeople.) Over the past decade and a half, cryotherapy spread through Europe, and more recently took off in the US.

Now a couple of entrepreneurs are attempting to convince citizens of this sunburnt land to part with anywhere from $50 to $95 to spend two to three minutes being deep frozen.

Would you like ice with that?

David Farrington is the "Ice King" of Australia's tiny cryotherapy industry. Along with four others, he set up the country's first cryotherapy centre in a gym in Melbourne's suburban Glen Iris almost a decade ago.

Nowadays, in partnership with a GP, he runs Melbourne-based Arctic Mist. It delivers mobile cryo units all around the city and is about to open a cryotherapy clinic at the Malvern Fitness Centre. A while back, Farrington gave a treatment to Jacob Ohlson, a fitness-focused Sydneysider and the owner of a large IT solutions company. Ohlson was so impressed he considered buying a cryosauna for his personal use, before deciding to go the whole hog and launch a cryotherapy centre in the Sydney's salubrious Edgecliff.

Professional chill

"Cryotherapy is about the integration of health and technology, which are both interests of mine," Ohlson explains. He and Farrington are in a loose partnership, joining forces in the hopes of turning a trip to the cryotherapy centre into the equivalent of an afternoon at the day spa or a trip to the chiro.

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"One of the things that has held cryotherapy back in this country is those involved in it have taken a cottage industry approach," Farrington says. "What Jacob and I are now focused on is taking a professional approach.

"You're dealing with people who are half-naked and who are giving you sensitive information about their medical conditions. So it's important you have all the right procedures in place. For cryotherapy to be more widely embraced, those of us providing it need to operate in an ethical, businesslike fashion."

Muscle in

The thinking behind cryotherapy is that exposure to extreme cold triggers the release of anti-inflammatory molecules and endorphins, and acts as a stimulant to the body's regulatory functions.

Unless you're pregnant, undergoing chemotherapy, suffering from a heart condition, allergic to the cold, recovering from a stroke or under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it's said to be unlikely you'll have an adverse reaction to being briefly frozen.

On the other hand, there also not currently a great deal of hard scientific evidence to back up the claims made for cryotherapy. These include: better sleep, stress relief, weight loss, fatigue management, the clearing up of skin conditions, and the relief of pain and inflammation caused by conditions such as arthritis.

What does seem to be universally accepted is that cryotherapy works wonders on sore muscles, and that's what Ohlson and Farrington are focusing on.

Weekend warriors

"There are a few markets we service," Farrington explains. "The obvious one is elite athletes, but the problem there is they don't like to pay for anything. There are women who want their skin to look more youthful. And there are high achievers who want to use it as a tool to enhance performance.

"For example, whenever Tony Robbins tours Australia he hires me to follow him around the country with a mobile cryo unit. I give him a treatment before he goes on-stage and as soon as he comes off it. He can be running around in front of an audience for 15 hours and believes cryotherapy helps him fight fatigue. He's even got a cryo machine at his Florida home."

Ohlson says cryotherapy's core market is 'weekend warriors'. "These are the corporate types in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They work all week in an office then run a half-marathon or go on an 80km bike ride on the weekend. They can come in before they do their exercise, which should allow them to perform to a higher level. Alternatively, they can come in afterwards to speed along the recovery process. What we're aiming for is to have people coming in, say, once a week or fortnight and making cryotherapy a regular part of their fitness regime."

Taking the icy plunge

So what's it like exposing your bare flesh to temperatures that would make a Siberian winter look like a balmy tropical day?

There's inevitably trepidation on your short walk from the change room to the cryosauna. Especially if you're the type to play out scenarios of perishing during a prolonged polar blast of breath-taking, consciousness-numbing, bloodflow-arresting frigidity.

When you do shrug off your robe and insert yourself into the gleaming chamber, it takes 20 to 30 seconds for the liquid nitrogen to start working and send your body temperature plummeting.

By the minute mark you're as cold as you're going to get and it's just a matter of how long you can endure it. I resolve that anything under two minutes is piking.

Nigel Bowen takes the plunge at Cryo.

Chill out, dude

Needless to say it's chilly – really chilly. But it's a dry cold that doesn't compare to experiences such as getting caught in the rain in a biting wind or diving into the ocean on a winter's day. It's more bracing than painful.

My breathing remains relatively normal, my teeth don't chatter and I'm not aware of goosebumps. I couldn't determine if any 'shrinkage' took place. If so, the effects were short-lived (pardon the pun).

At the 90-second mark the backs of my knees begin to sting, possibly as the result of sweat on them icing up. At the two-minute mark the operator congratulates me on being 'hardcore' and suggests two-and-a-half minutes will be more than enough time in the cryosauna for a first-timer. The suggestion falls on receptive (if cold) ears, though I suspect I could have pushed through to three minutes if necessary.

A rush of elation

As the door swings open and I'm released from my liquid nitrogen-filled giant beaker, the first thing I notice is mental rather than physical – a rush of elation and relief.

As the room-temperature air greets my flesh, which has acquired the texture of frozen sausages, there's a short-lived sensation of pins and needles. Thirty seconds later, I'm back in the change room and ready to get on with the rest of my day.

For the following 24 hours my dodgy shoulder gives me no grief and it's like I've got my ache-free 18-year-old body back. I decide that while cryotherapy is never going to be everyone's cup of iced tea, I'll be back for another treatment.

Cryotherapy costs from $50 to $95 per session at Cryo and Arctic Mist, depending on the package selected.